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Siberian Ice Maiden

Pascale Petit

On my table is a mutton tail,

a bronze knife with wolf handle, jug of khoumis,

a translucent yak horn bowl.


My six horses lie near, their coats still

that chestnut sheen. They face east

in their gilt saddles with felt cushions

             stuffed with stag-hair,

bridles covered with gold leaf.


My coffin is carved from a single larch log

and curves like a cradle. Four copper nails

seal it shut, and on the sides, leather reindeer fly.


Open my lid to a block of milky white ice.

Dismayed my cocoon is opaque,

your pace slackens.


Melt me. Heat buckets with blowtorches to pour

boiling water into my casket,

             cup by careful cup,

until the scent of coriander is released.


At night you dream of gouged eyes,

the sockets stuffed with fur.


Each day you stand in freezing water

as the smell of wet wool gets stronger

and you glimpse gold flecks in the ice.


             Your arms move as if in trance

as I emerge from my two-thousand-year


curled on my left side,

my cheek nestled against the pillow.


Only patches of my face remain.

My hair has been shaved, a hole cut in my skull

to insert incense and pine cones

             instead of a brain,

the gash sewn with sinew.


I am alone in my Tree of Life headdress

             on its larch frame.

Tien Shan snow leopards, gold birds, a griffin,

             perch on its branches.

A quiver and bow hang from the apex.


Pull back the marten fur blanket to view my necklace

             of carved camels.

Lift the blouse from my shoulder to find flesh

tattooed a deep midnight blue -

a frieze of deer-horses with blossoming horns.


My hands are intact,

the thumbs dyed with swirling indigo antlers that break into flower

             when you touch them.


The curves of my breasts are soft

             as the day I was buried,

my skin yellow from tannins.


Behind my bent knees a red pouch

holds my brass mirror, horsehair brush, iron eye-pencil.

You trace long incisions in my back, belly and limbs

             where my organs and muscles were removed,

peat, bark and sedge packed in their place.


That early spring, when I died young on the Pasture of Heaven

I was wearing this crimson blouse of wild silk,

this thick wool and camel hair skirt,

white felt stockings, a belt,

these still supple thigh-high riding boots to protect my skin

             from chaffing against the saddle -

all made it

             through the centuries unscathed.


I was preserved until the ground thawed enough

to bury me in the Altai, high up

where only ibex climb and eagles nest

             so I could reach the afterlife

on the backs of my horses.



I am displayed in this museum, my clothes

and sacred ornaments on mannequins behind glass,

             my body naked.


From The Rialto No 65 (Summer 2008)