Recently, Walhydra has at times heard an indistinct yet somehow familiar voice murmuring in her ear. It has taken her a while to notice enough of a pattern to these occasions to realize that she should be paying attention.
Walhydra hears the voice most clearly during certain interesting moon phases. She also hears it, sometimes, if she makes a particularly satisfying movement or stretch during taoist tai chi chuan.
“Ah. Thank you,” the voice whispers.
After over three years of classes and practice, Walhydra’s body has learned to recognize quickly the relaxed and energized templates of full extension and settled, balanced weight—whenever she happens to stumble into them, that is. In fact, Walhydra is now more often able to stumble into them on purpose.
During the rare moments when this happens, Walhydra’s body rediscovers all of its missing parts. In particular, there is the matter of rediscovering her whole right side, from toes to crown.
Though Walhydra is naturally left handed (of course), she has also struggled since her fourth year with muscular and neurological asymmetry on the right, caused by non-paralytic polio. When she is inattentive—in other words, most of the time—Walhydra’s right foot, knee and hip splay outward a bit, throwing her whole frame off balance. To compensate, she has a chronic rightward crick in her neck, and something resembling a skyhook pulling up her left shoulder.
Though these distortions may only be outwardly observable to the trained eye, the gentle reader is left to imagine what fifty-some years of standing and sitting this way must feel like from the inside.
"It's as if I've spent most of my live hunching away from a blow," says Walhydra. "Shield arm raised—rather awkwardly—but sword arm useless."
The voice chuckles at this uncharacteristically warrior-like imagery.
"Huh?" Walhydra grunts, glancing around.
[Note from the amanuensis: It is definitely awkward to raise one's arm mainly with the trapezius rather than the deltoid.]
Back in the spring, Walhydra managed to get through two weekend tai chi intensive workshops. In both, advanced instructors from the USA headquarters concentrated on a few crucial movements, for the sake of deciphering, demonstrating and having students practice the precise angles and articulations which would enhance the health benefits of those efforts.
Walhydra was amazed at the consequences.
A core principle of taoist tai chi is to relax shoulders and lower back, to settle one's weight into one's hips and thighs, and to make one's movements by pushing the floor away and rotating around one's spine with the power of those thigh muscles.
A second core principle is to turn only within the angle between one's line of travel and forty-five degrees, and no farther.
[The various martial schools of tai chi use different principles, yet this approach focuses one's practice on the organic benefits of the movements.]
Two seemingly minor bits of personal coaching during those intensives turned all the lights on for Walhydra.
First, in a movement call a toryu [see image below], one foot is forward, while the back foot is turned out "at the 45."
One moves one's weight alternately between the front and back feet by pushing against the floor, turning, and dropping the weight into the opposite hip. Walhydra tends to wobble whenever she turns her weight onto an angled right foot and hip.
"Put your front foot a step farther forward than you're used to," an instructor hinted.
As odd as this felt, Walhydra tried it. With this small change, she found that the very structure of her skeleton obliged her to turn only forty-five degrees, instead of allowing her to collapse farther backwards.
It was as if her body were suddenly saying, "Oh! You mean that 45!"
Second toryu hint, a different instructor, a second intensive. "When you turn back, when you turn forward, keep your head and chest upright and lead with your heart."
Wow! This was like the lightning bolt of awakening from on high!
In the weeks that followed, Walhydra would get distracted while doing the tai chi set in regular class, because she kept sensing a degree of poise and extension she'd never experienced before.
"I have a right arm!" she exclaimed to her own instructor, only half in jest.
Eventually, she also discovered a right hip and leg. More recently still, she discovered an all-important deep body muscle: the right psoas!
[ For more on Walhydra and the "secret life of the psoas," see this story.]
All of this new awareness doesn't last, though, without conscious attention. In part because Walhydra is so lousy at maintaining any sort of daily practice on her own. Were she to do so, the conscious attention would become body knowledge.
Which brings us back to that voice.
One day, in the midst of some movement or other, Walhydra felt the characteristic popping of joints which comes with unkinking the right side of her neck.
Then her right shoulder and elbow and wrist popped, as she extended that arm. Then the right hip and knee...and all the way down to the bunioned right big toe.
"Oh!" said Walhydra.
And then, "Who's that?" said Walhydra.
Because it felt as if her whole right side had come alive and been fleshed out by...someone.
"You don't remember me?" asked the voice.
"Crippled Wolf! What are you doing there?"
"I live here."
"But...that's part of me."
"But how can you be there?"
"Do the math."
Walhydra puzzled over this one for a bit. She had thought that Crippled Wolf just existed in her mind—or maybe in her imagination.
"Well, yes. But I'm part of our body, too."
"Um..., well...." Walhydra felt very strange for a while, so she went back to concentrating on the tai chi set.
During her next class, Walhydra felt her usual collapsed-ness when dropping the weight into her right hip.
By chance, she straightened her neck again...and Crippled Wolf filled out her right side, directing the weight properly.
"How do you do that?" Walhydra exclaimed.
"You let me, when you straighten your neck."
"But it feels like I'm leaning my head to the left."
"You are. You're straightening your neck to the vertical."
Walhydra felt exhilarated and confounded at the same time.
"But...." She grasped for words. "It's as if someone else is in my right side. Someone I can't feel."
"It's just me."
"Why do I feel like a phantom? Because you've been pretty much ignoring me for fifty-five years. That's why."
Walhydra shut up for a while.
The next time she wanted to extend her right arm, Walhydra straightened her neck again. And there was Crippled Wolf.
"This is going to take some pondering," she muttered to herself.
Since then, Walhydra's body has been the laboratory for an on-going experiment.
Walking through the reference stacks at work, she will straighten her neck ("pop, crunch") and unfasten her left shoulder from the skyhook ("crunch, pop")
"I'm still here," Crippled Wolf will whisper, as he stretches luxuriously.
Climbing the Main Library's pretentiously named Grand Stairway in the mornings, she will alternately sink her weight into one hip and then the other, each time pushing off with that foot.
"I'm still here."
Best of all, walking sometimes, or even just standing at the reference desk, she will push the floor away with her right root and feel Crippled Wolf rise, bone by bone, tendon by tendon, aligning each joint in turn from that bunioned big toe to the top of her head.
"You see what it's like when you let me be here?"
But Walhydra is understandably puzzled by all of this.
"Where have you been for fifty-five years?" she asks.
"Why couldn't I feel you there?"
Crippled Wolf ponders this for a long time.
"Remember that first time we talked, after the werewolf dream?"
"I asked you what you feared about the dream, and you daren't answer my question."
Walhydra's turn to ponder.
"I remember," she murmurs at last.
"I think it's about our believing we weren't allowed to be a 'real' boy."
Walhydra ponders some more.
"Um...what do you mean?"
"What do you remember, with the first little kids you knew, right after the polio?"
"Being happy. They liked me."
"Yeah. I remember that, too. But what do you remember about the new kids after we moved, the year after the polio."
"Kids laughing at me for spilling tomato juice on myself in kindergarten. Boys teasing me in first grade, because I was lousy at kickball. Being called a sissy."
"Yeah," Crippled Wolf says.
A long silence.
"Do you remember the first boy you had a crush on?" Crippled Wolf's tone is gentle.
Walhydra feels embarrassed. "Jeff, on Lassie."
"Um...." Walhydra feels more embarrassed. "Spin, on Spin and Marty."
"Just because they were regular boys...I guess. And they were...um...cute."
"I was five! Are you kidding?!"
"But not a regular boy. Not a 'real' boy."
Walhydra feels her anger rise.
"Are you saying that's why I'm gay?!"
"No, no!" Crippled Wolf says earnestly. "We've always been gay. I'm just saying that's why you forgot about me. Because they all kept telling you you weren't a real boy."
Walhydra has to sit down. After a long time, her curiosity gets to her.
"Are you gay?"
"I said 'We've always been gay.' Of course I am."
"But you're a real boy?"
"Of course we are! Look between your legs."
"Oh. Well. There is that."
Startled at hearing herself yell this childhood insult, Walhydra gives a boyish giggle, which Crippled Wolf echoes.
Then she remembers childhood shoving and teasing matches with her younger brother—who never said she wasn't a real boy.
"Yes," says Crippled Wolf. "There's always been that blessing. Our brother—and our sister."
"Yeah," Walhydra says, smiling. "But then...we were all pretty weird kids."
"The best kind."
Walhydra feels a glow. But then she stops short.
"But...," she begins. "But how come you're only coming out now? When I'm almost sixty?"
It hurts to ask this.
"It takes a long time to heal."
"No. From teasing."
Walhydra sits a long time after this comment.
"Um. How come you call yourself Crippled Wolf?"
"Because we're crippled."
"No. By polio."
"But you said 'healing'."
"Yes. I said 'healing.' From being shamed, being teased. Not 'cured' from polio."
Walhydra stares ahead.
Crippled Wolf whispers in her ear, "That's what Jesus did, by the way. He healed people."
And so it is.