The monk cuts across the courtyard to where we’re staring up at Wat Lao Buddharam, here on 44th Street in Chollas View.
“Can I help you?”
Soon he is inviting us to come look inside. We shed our shoes and sit down, he on the raised altar level, we on the slightly lower level mat, as is customary.
My buddy Karen is looking at his right hand.
“Are you double-jointed?” she asks. Because his fingers bend distinctly in a reverse direction, the way classical dancers of the Ramayana bend their hands gracefully backwards.
“No,” he says. “Hand grenade.”
And this is how we get to know Phou Vieng Insysiengmae, a child soldier from Laos, who was saved by a mermaid in the Mekong river.
“I was born near Savannakhet in southern Laos, in 1960. When I was 14, government people came and took me and other boys into the mountains. They showed us how to use a gun. Then they sent us out to fight, for years.”
He points to his bent finger. “I was going to throw this hand grenade when a big explosion happened right in front of me. I said, ‘What the hell?’ and I forgot about the grenade for a moment. It exploded. I was lucky I wore an American helmet that day. Then I got shot through my right leg. It felt like somebody kicked me.”
After five years of near-death experiences “fighting for the Americans,” Phou Vieng really thought his luck had run out.
“We were retreating to the Mekong, but no boat to get away, to cross the river. All we could do was to try and swim from Laos to Thailand. The cold water, it hits you. You have your gun, ammunition, you are heavy. I jumped in. I got cramps in both legs. You cannot move. You go down. I went all the way under. Deep, very deep. Many of us were caught in whirlpools. They can keep you down for three miles before they spit you up. Nobody help. Then something came from under to help me. A mermaid? A big fish? Long hair, like a girl. Swim really fast.
“My eyes were closed, but I could see, in the water, the face of a girl, human hair, but body like a fish. She grabbed my body and pushed me, flipped me with her tail, up to the [riverbank on the] Thailand side. That’s why I lived. That’s why I am here now. But we were 130 soldiers, and maybe 70 die.”
Could it have been a Mekong manatee? But manatees don’t have hair. “I asked old people over there. They knew about it. About people underwater who help you. If you help people, and [nature] everywhere, it remembers. It sees the snake, the scorpion, before you do. If you do good, maybe it helps you too.”
Now he lives the life of a Buddhist monk in San Diego. But he says that moment, and that creature, live with him. “I see in my eye every night, every day. People say real, not real. Nobody believes, but I see it, and I am here. If I didn’t have her, and luck, I am gone.”