My Siamese Leg

Racing on stilts

My Tokyo girlhood transpired in not-so-splendid isolation. A mildly deformed foot — my father’s — kept my brothers and I in armchairs when we might have been outside, jumping or skipping or chasing a ball. Exercise was our father demanding that we fetch a Sidney Bechet album from a pile of records, or yet another book from his bedroom at the other end of our vast, lugubrious house, which had once been the German embassy. Exercise was the accretion of small filial resentments at our thoroughly tedious enslavement. Perhaps this is why every year at The International School of the Sacred Heart’s Field Day events, I veered toward sports that required no practice, no daily dedication of sweat or labor — above all, no athletic bent or outfit or skill, really, save a pronounced ability to bear ridicule.

There were two such sports, and I loved them both: the three-legged race and the stilts. In the first, there were red or white cloths that secured my ankle to that of a friend. The two of us would have to take the first step together on our Siamese leg and every subsequent one on opposite feet. Soon we’d hit our stride and go hurtling down the track at a frightening rate. My partner was Olivia, a British girl with curly chestnut hair, enflamed cheeks on a milky complexion, crimson lips, and thick glasses; she was almost as awkward as I. But with our ankles bound we were a formidable composite running machine. We won the Three-Legged Race that day, cheered on mostly by nuns. (Our classmates considered this particular race beneath contempt.) One gangly Belgian nun ran alongside to measure our progress, her skirts hoisted up, her veil flying behind her.

Both games were, it seems to me now, embodiments of the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. A table, say, in order to be a table, requires all the molecules of which it is composed; space to fill with its presence; a floor on which to rest; and, finally, the name, table. Racing on stilts, my interdependent collaboration was with a pair of inanimate objects. I placed my right foot on the ledge attached to the side of a tall wooden pole while holding it at shoulder height with my right hand; then, having found my balance, I swung my left leg up and placed my left foot on the opposite pole, which I held steady before setting off, making my strides as long as possible. This race, too, I won every time. A Buddhist might say that was a gross definition of interdependence. It is, no doubt, a mildly handicapped one.