just published: new memoir from the Winter 2013 issue, Steve Coffman’s Perfume River

29 Jan

Unexpectedly, Lo-an took us next to a small temple, less impressive and well kept than Chien Mu and Minh Mang, yet still exotic in its brightly cluttered way. Made of wood, three levels of altars were connected by narrow stairs with timeworn flags hanging from the banisters. Each level offered its own red and gold shrine and money plate. The temple was crowded with statuary. A central female figure was  flanked by nine larger-than-life male figures on her right and nine equally large females on her left. The center figure was the Mother Goddess, whose temple this was, Lo-an explained. These honored disciples had witnessed the miraculous reappearance here of the Mother Goddess in 1843. It was a temple for people with bad troubles. We were stretching our legs and nosing about, taking a picture or two of this dusty and forlorn temple of misfortunate souls, when Lo-an abruptly announced, “This is my temple. Please, I must pray a little here.”

Bobbie and I on one side, Karl and Roy on the other, we were all suddenly jolted to a new level of respectfulness and interest as she bought a bundle of incense, then supplicated herself in the center of the altar and waved the incense two times on one axis and three times in the other, two times and three times once again, and then after placing the bundle on the altar, prostrated herself in prayer, the perfumed smoke now filling our noses. After a few moments of prayerful bobbing, she raised herself up and took a decorated red and gold wooden canister full of spindly sticks off the altar. She shook the canister causing four or five sticks to jump out onto the kneeling platform in front of her. Tossing us a lightly embarrassed smile, she said, “Too many. I must try again.”

On her second try, only one stick jumped out upon the altar. She immediately grabbed it up, examined it on each of its four slender sides, then excitedly ran into a back room behind the altar that we hadn’t seen before. In less than two minutes, Lo-an returned, her eyes wet and shiny, so much happiness in her gait and on her face that she almost seemed to be dancing as her singing voice announced: “Good news! Wonderful news!”

When we started back to the boat, Bobbie touched Lo-an’s arm and said, “Whatever your troubles are I hope they get better soon.”

Lo-an nodded profusely and thanked Bobbie. “Now I think they will, but I must pray very much,” she said.

(keep reading)

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