Nazca Hair, Peru – the skull of a woman, possibly a priestess, with hair still attached, from approximately 200 BCE. The hair is 2.8 meters long. (Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of the UNT, Trujillo, Peru)
Over 9 feet of hair, it lies
in two long ropes,
turning and twisting in on itself
like the branches of a huarango tree.
Even now, the average height for women in Peru
is only 5’2”. Imagine having hair
almost twice as long as your body.
Priestess, what must your life have been
for you to sweep about
with such epic locks?
The heft of it! The heat of it!
And what a job it must have been
to wash. I wonder if you
had attendants to follow you around,
keeping your follicular train
from dragging along the floor,
or if you carried it yourself,
draped over your shoulders
like a stole? Or did you spend
all your time in the temple,
lost in the ecstasy
of mescaline cactus visions,
dancing with your killer whale
and spotted cat gods,
with your gods of fish
and peanuts, with the three sisters
A climate of extremes
begets a culture of excess:
immense earthworks and plazas,
the famous lines scrawled
for miles across the desert
that were clearly meant
for gods’ eyes. So we can’t exactly
claim surprise to find such hair—
equally massive, equally deliberate.
These tresses suggest, too,
the puquios, stone spirals running
into the earth. In a time when water
and God were inextricable,
did you swim the aethereal channel,
bringing divinity back down to earth
to slake the thirst of the faithful?
O priestess of trepanation,
of cranial modification,
collector of trophy heads,
what strange phrenology
must you represent? With your language
of knotted strings, the natural argot
of weavers, your warp and weft
are equally indecipherable.
Are you the Nazca, the Andes?
Are you the Earth itself?
Eventually, despite your efforts,
drought took them all.
Now you’re housed
in the same museum,
(a temple of sorts),
beside the effigy of a woman
carved out of whale’s tooth.
It, too, has hair. Maybe you knew
that bone and hair persist,
that it would be the tether
between past and future,
between us and you,
the last echo of your magic.
The Gilded Monk
1,000-year-old mummified monk found hidden in statue
Hundreds tried but only 24 ever achieved
what the Japanese called sokushinbutsu,
the act of self-mummification:
3,000 days of brutal preparation.
First, limit your diet to nuts, seeds, bark, and roots.
Perform strenuous physical activity to further
pare down the body. Drink toxic Urushi tea.
It will make you vomit, but it will also
make your remains impervious to maggots
and the bacteria that feed on corpses.
When you are ready, your pine box
is just large enough for you
to fold yourself into the lotus position.
We lower you into the ground,
a bamboo tube for oxygen.
Every day, you ring a bell to let us know
that you are still alive.
When the bell stops ringing,
we know to remove the tube
and seal you in.
In 1,000 days, we exhume you.
You are found preserved.
You achieved the death-trance.
Now a holy object, you are moved
to the temple to be revered
until it is time for you to awaken.
1,000 years later,
your body is found in Amsterdam,
tucked inside a statue of the Buddha,
with scrolls of paper
where your lungs once were.
This cannot be your terminus—
garish gold leafing and papier-mâché,
museum tours across Europe.
Where does your soul yet sojourn?
Do you yet dwell among the devas,
gathering sufficient wisdom
to deliver salvation unto us?
We await you, bodhisattva.
We speak your name,
after Anatomical Venuses, 18th century
It was the Enlightenment. For science, they said. For art.
For God. For the body is the reflection of the world, is
a reflection of God. (As above, so below.) They sought
the pinnacle of knowledge. But cadavers were hard to come by.
So the artists came, the ceroplasticians, pouring beeswax
and chemicals into molds, conjuring Pygmalion’s nameless love.
We emerged, a spill of curls, a throat of pearls, hips and breasts,
inlaid glass eyes lined with real lashes, recumbent like Odalisques,
heads thrown back, arms behind our heads, painted faces both
ecstatic and serene, Holy Virgins receiving our Annunciations,
even the pregnant models. Invariably white as ivory, invariably slender,
invariably comely. For the anatomy lessons, they said, but only
female figures were rendered in such meticulous detail. The males
were skinless, featureless, prosaic. But we have our own magic.
We know about effigies. We know about simulacrums.
We know about golems and fertility statues. You peeled
back the layers, tunneled into us, trying to understand.
Look how these organs unfurl. Look at this fetus, so realistic.
You called us Venuses. You named us for a goddess, the one
that shares her name with veneration. But we had no say.
And we held the wrong kind of sway. You knelt at our sides,
knowing it was a false love, a false idolatry. But the hatred
was real, the contempt was real, as it was in the beginning,
now and ever shall be. You called us slashed beauties.
Thoraxes and abdomens sprung like the lid of a pocket watch.
Or like the lid torn off of Pandora’s box. Perhaps you denied
the sexual nature, perhaps you reveled in it, perhaps both. We are
creatures of infinite contradiction, of infinite appetite. Did you know
the word agalmatophilia? Did you know it was necromancy? We were
the forbidden. Faux dead, for real damned. We were the uncanny valley
and you went blithely down, exposing that which was once hidden.
The violence and the violation. Such transgressions exact their price,
O, Liebestod. O, Rohypnol. See us. Know our names: Elizabeth Smart.
Jon Benet Ramsey, Laura Palmer, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Ann Nichols,
Ophelia, Snow White, Annabel Lee, Zellandine/Aurora/Briar Rose.
The dead beauty is the eternal beauty, or so you say. What women
ought to be, and what we ought not to be. The bed is a coffin. To die
is to become an object. No matter what, beautiful women especially
are thought to be complicit in their own demise. We should be thanking
the men who bestowed the gift of their attention, froze us in time, spared us
crow’s feet and saggy tits. Pardon our lack of gratitude. We are only
made of wax and a single rib.
Where Man Doth Not Inhabit
for disappearing Antarctica
devoid of stars
only mountains preside
over the dust and salt,
the scouring cold,
the nothing that is not nothing,
only not mammal.
What rough materials
keep their secrets--
it may seem like proof of our solitude
until the wind moves down the slopes
like a goading hand.
We stand in the shadow
of the observatory.
Land of the unseen,
connecting us to other worlds,
umbilicus of bacteria and protein,
soil around us littered
with the universe’s
O, world’s beginning
and world’s end,
so far from the borders of man,
we’ve forgotten our kinship
to the pared-down and the open,
bottom rung on the ladder
to cosmic radiance.
The second season comes.
Driven indoors by the killing cold,
we sleep, like microbes in ice,
we sleep. Thaw us out and
we hatch colour.
the old ones knew
there was something
about giving every
a stake in it.
It pleases me
to think that stone
flame and dew
are no less deserving
for lacking breath.
Lauren Scharhag (she/her) is an associate editor for GLEAM: Journal of the Cadralor, and the author of fourteen books, including Requiem for a Robot Dog (Cajun Mutt Press) and Languages, First and Last (Cyberwit Press). Her work has appeared in over 150 literary venues around the world. Recent honors include the Seamus Burns Creative Writing Prize and multiple Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Kansas City, MO. To learn more about her work, visit: www.laurenscharhag.blogspot.com