On Sam Mountain

By Mary Lane Potter

February 22, 2021

On Sam Mountain

At the peak—932 feet above the Mekong floodplain—beyond the holy caves and the Cham, Buddhist, Hindu, and Mother-Goddess temples that litter the twisting pilgrim road, a mother and father are teaching their young son how to pray. They buy a dull brown tennis ball of a bird from an old woman trolling the site with a cage woven of twigs. Standing before a simple ancestor shrine, the father cups the bird in his hands as the mother's hands show how to receive the offering, close around it, shelter it softly—just so—then release. In the boy’s hands, the bird flutters. He startles, laughs, then turns solemn, steadies his gaze, and begins to chant. His teachers watch, transfixed, as his hands float up, open, and the bird flies free, higher and higher above the green, green weave of rice paddies stretching across peoples and borders far below.

While other tourists photograph the vistas or drink beer under rough palm thatching, I buy a bird.

“Careful! Disease!” a woman calls.

“Can’t free every prisoner!” a man chirps.

I, a child schooled in prayers and purity, a woman bent on escape yet at home in cages, know this well. But in my hands, a tiny body quivers. Heart beating. Feathers fluffing. Feet scratching. Warmth spreading.

In my skin, I am learning to hold life, without suffocating, without squandering—just so. With my body, I’m discovering how to fly free, how to trace an unseen path of meeting, how to join heaven and earth.


Mary Lane Potter’s books include Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountry, the novel A Woman of Salt, and the memoir Seeking God and Losing the Way.


Photo by Nine Koepfer courtesy of Unsplash

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