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I scissor-kick as high as I can and land on my right foot. I haven't got another one. My name is Niya Moto, and I'm the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Usually I miss my foot and land on my backside. Or flat on my face in the dirt.
I'm not good at exercises, but I'm great at standing on one leg. Raising my arms over my head, I pretend I am the White Crane. "Look at me!" the crane screeches across the training ground. "Look at him," the valley echoes.
But Sensei Ki-Yaga is not looking. My master sits in the sun with his back against the old, stooped cherry tree. He is as ancient as the mountains around our school and as dilapidated as the equipment we use. Most people think he died years ago.
Eyes shut, he's not watching me practice. That lazy old man slept through the only upright landing I've ever made! I lower my right arm, and the White Crane makes a rude gesture with its wing.
Sensei's wrinkled mouth creaks into a smile, but his eyes stay hidden behind closed lids. "A boy who cannot perfectly execute even half a scissor-kick should not waste time finding fault with his teacher. More practice, Little Cockroach." His voice rumbles like thunder.
"Yes, Master." I bow low to show my respect. Even though he is strict, I like Sensei, and I never forget that he was the only teacher not bothered by my missing leg.
"I am not a counter of feet," he told me. "I am a collector of more important parts. And when I buy you socks, they will last twice as long."
When the Cockroach Ryu wrote and offered me a samurai traineeship, Father was impressed.
"Look, Niya. Master Ki-Yaga wielded a sword in the days of legend, when the samurai were great and powerful. They fought in real battles then, not tournament rings like today."
"I thought he was dead," Mother added.
"So did I. He must be extremely old, but not too frail to write and ask for our boy."
Mother and Father are pushovers for a famous name, even an almost dead one. They looked at me proudly, as if I had done something special. I stood straight and tall on my one leg, and pretended I had. Anything, if they would let me go.
"It's too far away," Mother finally said. "The Cockroach Ryu is in the Tateyama Mountains. It's too cold there." In the end the decision made itself. I had no other offers. Even my father's old school, the Dragon Ryu, would not take me. "We regret to inform you we cannot accept a one-legged boy," their letter said. Father went to see the Dragon people, to yell they were honor-bound to teach his son, but they wouldn't even answer him. "The Dragon Ryu is not good enough for Niya," Father announced. "Niya will go to Ki-Yaga."
I wondered why such a great man wanted to teach a crippled boy. Maybe he felt sorry for me. But I didn't care. I desperately wanted to be a samurai. I would've hopped all the way to the mountains if necessary.
"Grandfather!" I called out to my elder who shared our house.
"Grandfather, I am to study with Sensei Ki-Yaga."
"I thought he was dead," Grandfather answered. Three years have passed since the day of the letter.
My town life is long gone. I am fourteen now, and this old school high on the mountain is my home. For another three years I will study here, and when I leave, I'll be a samurai warrior.
I punch the air with my foot and land on the other one I haven't got. Sprawled out on the grass, I lift my face to see if Sensei is watching this time. Even though his lids are still closed, the wrinkles at the edge of his face are smiling.
My bamboo crutch lies useless beside him. He won't let me use it when I practice.
"You don't need that," he says. "It will weigh you down."
Now, with my mouth full of dirt, I think I need some extra weight for balance. But I never give up, because in my heart I am the White Crane, proud and defiant.
When I was too young to carry a sword, Father took me to a lake to fish. A tall, thin bird stood at the water's edge. Staring at me with shining black eyes, the crane slowly tucked one leg up under its body. One-legged, just like me! My spirit totem flew into my heart. When I look into the mirror, I don't see my reflection; I see the White Crane. If I am afraid, it crouches with me and I'm not alone. When I am happy, it screeches my gladness to the world.
"More practice, Little Cockroach," Sensei growls. Lifting itself out of the grime, the White Crane shakes the dust from its snowy feathers.
"Eee-yah!" it cries as I begin the move again.
On the same day that I arrived at the Cockroach Ryu, three boys and one girl also came to the school's old, empty rooms: Mikko, with his one arm; Yoshi, who is huge and strong, but refuses to fight; Kyoko, who has an extra finger and an extra toe, and is a girl; Taji, blind in both eyes. And me. We're the unwanted. Unwanted everywhere else but here.
"A cracked bowl can hold water. There is nothing wrong with the bowl. It just needs to be held properly," Sensei instructs.
"Huh?" says Mikko.
Mikko's brain doesn't like to think unless it has to. "He means we are just as capable as everyone else."
"Maybe even better, with the right teacher," says Taji. Taji thinks a lot, because he can't see. He likes to sit in the sun and meditate. Sensei sits beside Taji with his eyes closed so he can't see either. Their oms drift through the practice ground. Closing my eyes, I think of Taji, who has two legs but has never seen the practice ring.
"Oy. Aye-yah. Oy!" I cry.
I kick high and land solid on my foot. Perfectly. Hopping around in excitement, the White Crane dances on one leg.
"Well done," Sensei calls.