A lamp dimly lights the sage walls of a hotel room. Curtains pulled tight. Beneath a few layers of blankets and sheets, a body: female, approximately age twenty. Skeleton supine. Her back curved, like a shell.
The girl’s mother kneels by the bed. “Do you want to go for a short walk?” Formerly muscular from running, the girl’s limbs are a specter of their old strength. The girl looks up, eyes glassy, and nods. Her mother’s hand supporting her back, she eases a leg from the mattress. Without warning, her head begins to rock from side to side on its own. Within her skull, the sensation of mist enveloping a mountain, everything clouded. The urge to coax sounds from the back of her throat: eh, mauh, ah, ah, mauh, mauh. The mother smooths her daughter’s body back down. “Rest,” the mother whispers. She runs her fingertips along the contours of her girl’s face.
Since returning from a study abroad trip in Peru, the girl has succumbed to neurological episodes. The strange spells leave her with gaps in memory. She does not remember the long flights from Lima to Miami to Raleigh. Or her legs crumpling from under her on a mountainside outside of Arequipa. Or the afternoons her mother has spent waiting in the hotel room, making to-do lists, pacing. In sleep, her fingers curl around the convex of her eye, an echo from when she was a baby.
Later, when the girl flickers into awareness, her mother asks, “What happened to you while you were gone?”
Arequipa is bathed in sunlight. In front of a rust-red building, a poster shows a gold statuette adorned with red and yellow patterned textiles. A bright tuft of feather protrudes from his shiny head. “This is where we will see a mummy,” Raul tells us. He is our Peruvian guide. Stout and wry, he has gained popularity with our class by stopping at the cheapest liquor depots on our many bus trips, sharing pieces of history, and offering pertinent advice. Drink water constantly. Nap. Eat enough food.
“No photos,” he warns. Some of my classmates grumble; they take photographs everywhere we go. They pay to hold baby llamas. They jump over the same spot on a water-soaked bog thirteen times to get the perfect shot. They pose like colonial explorers on the edge of islands, jutting out their chests. I am no different. Each of us crafts our own idea of what we want the country to be.
But this museum offers nothing for us to snatch up with a lens. We enter a room, air conditioning on full blast. The space, dimly lit, demands our silence. “They call this mummy ‘The Ice Maiden’ or ‘Juanita,’” Raul says.
The story Raul tells is born of science and artifact. As with any archeological find, Juanita has been studied extensively. Her stomach matter has been tested, clothes peeled away, bones scanned, teeth examined, hair plucked for analysis. From these clues, a story is born, one told often enough that it now seems like truth.
Here is what is known: the girl, somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen, was selected from her village by the Incas as a capacocha sacrifice, a rite sometimes translated to “royal obligation,” because she was healthy and without blemish. She was taken to Cuzco, where she was kept with other acllas, virgin women, and most likely learned to sew and weave for months while preparing herself for sacrifice. Her sacrifice was intended to quell natural disasters and keep the people of the Inca Empire safe. To be chosen was seen as a great honor.
When it was time, the girl traveled with priests, assistants, and llamas to the base of Mount Ampato, where she and the priests completed offerings before climbing to a small plateau at 19,200 feet. There, she slept in a tent. Before making her final climb to the peak, she ate vegetables. At the summit, the girl chewed coca leaves and drank chicha, acts intended to disorient and sedate her. Then, someone struck her with blunt force near her right eye.
After her death, freezing temperatures mummified her body, which was held in ice for over approximately 530 years. In 1995, two climbers—one of them also an anthropologist—discovered the body after hot ash from a recent volcanic explosion absorbed sunlight and melted the frozen summit of Mount Ampato, revealing the mummy and an assortment of statuettes, pots, and food.
I’m drawn in by the shape her name takes on my tongue. Juanita. I want to know her, to study her face. I share in the compulsion to create a whole narrative from the mummy’s body and surrounding artifacts. But this history, pieced together from a variety of sources, is incomplete. It always will be.
Here, at my home in Oklahoma, I keep an assemblage of my own artifacts. A Marine Corps Marathon bib: 28317. Two scratchy yellow FALL RISK socks that reach the calf, white plastic grips on the soles. A blue bracelet sliced clean down the middle, white type raised like symbols on a stele: ALNES, JACQUELINE, DOB: 11/30/1991. Gleaming cherry-red arms of a travel wheelchair. From this collection in my living room, the ghost of a girl takes shape.
Here is what is known: In the beginning, there is a runner, capable and strong. In photographs, her thighs striate with muscle on the down step. Brown-blonde hair in French braids, she waves and smiles in each image. But on a mountainside in Peru, her legs give way beneath her. Rushed to North Carolina, where she attends university, her body crumples again and again, surrendering to a neurological abnormality.
Watch as the girl eases her sock-clad feet over the high rails of her hospital bed, steps down, shuffles only a wingspan. A hive of doctors and nurses and a worried mother. Days later, the crisp snip of scissors cutting that bracelet away, a doctor saying you’ve been discharged. Back at school, her wheels clatter as she is pushed across the red brick pathways of campus. Inside, classmates watch as she stands from her chair. Thin-limbed and shaky as a new animal, she takes a step before lowering herself onto the plastic seat of a desk. Outside the window, pale magnolia flowers wait like cupped hands for rain.
In the museum, Raul sets us free to peer through the streaked museum glass at artifacts found near the mummy’s body. Bowls in varying shades of brown. Big double-mouthed pitchers decorated in geometric patterns, pots fired orange, gold, and jet black. Two pairs of ropey sandals, soles patterned like worn alligator skin. A herd of miniature llamas lined up like a choir.
At the center of the room is the main attraction: a rectangular case shrouded in black cloth. Juanita’s museum home, a freezing chamber with misty glass walls. Raul tells us to gather around. I imagine the black cloth lifting, the mummy’s face staring vacant. I feel a need to see her, as if her eyes will offer me a clue. I know that the mummy is dead, has been dead, but my heart aches. To be this girl is to be opened, scanned, prodded, measured, observed. To remain there, far away from a god who whispered in clouds, quelled turbulent seas, or raged in swift lava streams.
I draw near as Raul lifts the cloth, but the chamber is empty. “Juanita is gone,” he says. “She goes in for maintenance a few times a year. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
Something like a sigh leaves me. Without her body, her life continues to be a mystery. Vacant chamber, absent body. This is what I’ve been given.
I like to dream that my body first failed me while I was abroad, but really, my body started to become enigmatic during my freshman year of college, two years before landing in Lima. At eighteen, after living a remarkably healthy life, I fainted one day in my dormitory. When I woke, the world around me turned into a surrealist painter’s vision: dressers spinning toward the white tiled ceiling, bed wobbling in my sight. That day marked the separation between the old me and a new girl. When I entered the doctor’s office, I became a body. A set of symptoms. A story someone else told.
I saw a neurologist for about a year before transferring to a larger hospital. Though the doctor was unable to officially diagnose me, he kept records. I include these excerpts as artifacts:
HISTORY OF THE PRESENT ILLNESS:
This is an eighteen-year-old college freshman at Elon who is also a distance athlete on a track team who presented with episodes of syncope. On 2/6/10, she was at a track meet and apparently did her warm-up run for about fifteen minutes. Upon returning from that she noted onset of dizziness once again with spinning sensation. She apparently sat down and subsequently passed out. She was noted to have normal blood pressure and heart rate at the time.
Subjective: Patient follow-up visit today for vertigo and episodes of acute behavior change. Tends to be able to say one word repeatedly and cannot communicate what she wants to say. This is associated with some confusion and memory loss of the event.
Patient here for follow-up of abnormal spells of impaired speech with pattern of aphasia, vertigo, and syncope followed by post-event lethargy and sleepiness. This pattern was suggestive of complex partial seizures. She was started on seizure medication for events with good response. Mother present today with patient and reports that daughter is now doing much better.
Subjective: Patient follow-up visit today for medication check. She denies any change in activity level at school. She still runs regularly despite quitting cross country team without spells when running on her own. No problems with school, family, or friends. She denies problems with self-esteem.
When I read the doctor’s notes, I feel a need to write my own account of what happened, even though I don’t remember certain parts of this time. In these excerpts, I feel like a criminal, my life and symptoms the subject of a trial: “She apparently sat down.” “She denies problems with self-esteem.” I remember the brusque line of questioning that occurred at each visit.
Did you really faint?
You’ve had no sexual intercourse? Are you sure?
So you experienced both aphasia and dizziness? Those symptoms usually don’t pair with one another.
Are you stressed about school? We have other resources, like counseling.
Once, after reassuring the doctor that I had never had sex, I was pregnancy tested three times within the span of a week, none of the nurses believing my testimony.
A woman in pain, doubted by a doctor. This is no revelation. I’m interested, though, in what happens to the woman who is told inconsistent stories about herself. Because I was told that I was remarkably normal, I stayed on my Division I track team. I attempted running, trying to feel powerful in the thrust of my foot from the ground, the quiver of my quadriceps upon impact. Even when my legs failed mid-stride and I was left lying by the track until someone carried me away, I was unable to believe that anything was wrong with me. You’re weak, I’d tell myself. You’re fine.
I still experience episodes—not as frequently, but they happen—and they leave me with afternoons I cannot account for. Slipping into an episode feels like being pulled underwater, the real world above bleary and faraway. Sometimes I try not to acknowledge my episodes, as if pretending they don’t exist might protect me, but for the sake of treatment, my mom asks that I keep track of what happens to me, and when. On the phone recently, she asked if I’d had any episodes lately. I said yes.
“What were your symptoms?” she asked. I could imagine her pen hovering over the square of a dated page. I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Um, I don’t know,” I said. The episodes are disorienting. I have been mid-conversation and fallen into a stupor. Beginning a run. Mid-presentation. Halfway down a lap in a pool. I have also been alone. Woken up to find myself half undressed. Woken up on the carpet of my hallway floor. If someone is around me during an episode, they can recite what happened to me, but oftentimes I don’t know what my body does. The doctor has labeled this “transient alteration of awareness.”
“Jacqueline, what were your symptoms? You need to be writing these down,” she says. My illness has forced us into a strange dance. With her, I vacillate between adult and child, capable and needy. In my life now, as a PhD student, university instructor, and runner, I live in perpetual fear of my body turning away. I want to snap back at her, my frustration channeled toward her and not the illness. You think I like not knowing what I’ve done? You think I don’t try to keep record?
Since becoming ill, I have collected fragments of notes taken while experiencing episodes during class sessions; interviewed former teammates in order to glean their memories of what I did while incoherent; watched videos taken without my consent; and collected physical artifacts like hospital socks, old running logs where I kept track of mileage and pace, and more. Each time I sit down at my desk, I sift through the detritus of illness, collecting the shards of broken memories.
To take up residence in my body again, I write. I struggle, over and over again, to compose a whole narrative from the loose threads of my own history. If only I could pin down the meaning of my body’s hidden illness, maybe I could make a shape of my body, carve a smooth statuette to hold in my palm. Young woman experiences disorienting neurological illness but emerges as a writer; Division I runner collapses, loses running for years, but returns and reconnects with her body; university student once bullied by teammates learns to be vulnerable once again. But none of these stories are completely true.
To my mother’s request for my symptoms, I say, “I’ll try to figure it out,” though I already know what they are this time. My boyfriend, at my request, keeps notes in his phone after each episode he witnesses. He writes them as if he were a scientist. “Fell asleep on bed,” he notes, or, “Asked her to speak and she couldn’t,” or, “Had difficulty swallowing.” This latest report iterates that I leaned over in the front seat of his car, held my forehead in one hand and moaned. He carried me to bed. I remember that I woke up screaming—I thought I was still being carried even after he set me down on my soft duvet. I didn’t know who he was or where I was. He talked me down, gently. Breathe, he said, as he always does. You’re home. It’s me, I’m here, he told me, as if he knew what information I was missing.
Six years have passed since I left Peru, and still I am trying to answer my mother’s question: What happened to you when you were gone? It haunts me. How can I write a history of myself without remembering? And why am I compelled to?
It’s difficult to figure out what happened in Peru, particularly because I’ve resisted asking my classmates about what I did when I was gone. Some time after visiting the chamber where Juanita was supposed to be, I began to have symptoms of illness: blurry vision, weak legs, the inability to form words. The exact moment of my body’s failure is hazy, just out of reach. Was it when I was on my way to Spanish class in Arequipa? My legs straining uphill, the dull pressure settling in my brain. Street dissolving. Or was it later? On the bus? When I try to see the scene, it’s as if low, strange clouds obscure my vision.
backbus seatroyal blue, soft-sharpjade green and mustardfuchsia confetti lineshead starts rocking—does it? —pressforehead against seatbrain clenched fist too tight and pulsingpaindizzying sense of flight—I am flying,flying, I am spinning, put me down,body holding me—he says her head is spinning does it usuallyshould I keepher head is spinning I dunno it’srocking on its own—silky cotton of hoteland
Archaeologists, in search of lost histories, perform surveys. I imagine them walking across long stretches of dusty earth, lifting stones from the ground, hoping to coax stories from what is unseen. When they discover an abnormality—a half-sunken artifact, a disturbance in terra cotta-colored soil—they pause. Maybe they kneel, as if in prayer. Confer. Make plans to excavate, and do so carefully. They sift soil. Hold fragments to the sun’s light. Their brushes render long-buried bone luminescent.
But what untold stories are buried with a body? Perhaps because I didn’t actually lay eyes on the mummy in the museum, or maybe because I felt an affinity for our lost bodies, I began reading about Juanita. In my apartment in North Carolina, my mother gone home, I waited months for a bed in the seizure ward to open. I spent those long empty days parsing through pamphlets, books, reviews, and news articles about the mummy.
Juanita was hailed as one of TIME magazine’s top ten most important scientific discoveries of 1995. National Geographic ran a twenty-one-page spread. Thousands of people flocked to see the body the first year she was displayed, including Bill Clinton. When Clinton saw a photo of the mummy, he remarked, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”
I tried to laugh Clinton’s joke away, but I kept turning it over and over in my mind. The girl, already turned into an object, further sexualized. Something in me rose up to defend her. I wheeled away from my computer. My roommates wouldn’t be home from their classes for hours, so I opened a 350-page tome: The Ice Maiden, written by Johan Reinhard, one of the men who discovered the mummy. In the prologue, he adopts a close third person point of view in order to tell a fictionalized account of the girl’s last living moments:
[The priest] told her it was time for her to drink from [a] cup. She lifted it to her lips in hands that had begun to freeze in the cold wind. Exhausted and unaccustomed to the bittersweet taste of maize beer, she had difficulty swallowing it…The priests then helped lower the girl into the structure. She had earlier felt honored by being selected to enter the realm of the gods, but now she was frightened at what she knew would happen next. Suddenly her vision turned black as a priest placed a cloth over her head. His face was the last thing she would ever see.
For a few minutes, I allowed myself to be sucked into the narrative. From my bedroom three thousand miles away, I could feel the icy wind whipping across the summit of Mount Ampato, the cool chalice against my lips. I closed my eyes, braced for a blow. I began to wonder how Reinhard devised these details. If acting as a human sacrifice was an honor, a death with an afterlife, a way of appeasing the gods to protect her family, then why had he chosen fear as her primary emotion? What of the story was I missing by only hearing the voice of a man, who had written an account over 500 years after her death?
There is no way for Reinhard to know how the girl was feeling in the moments before her death, no way for him to know what her reactions were to chicha, no way for him to know her last sight on earth. His words dramatize an event he never experienced. In that moment, Clinton’s joke on my web browser, Reinhard’s words in my lap, and my wheelchair a reminder of my own lack of agency, I felt furious. Even her given names—“Juanita” and “The Ice Maiden”—seemed insulting, as Reinhard makes clear that the team of researchers called “the frozen girl” “Juanita, because it was a familiar one among villagers and easy to remember.” What name had the girl answered to in life? What had she felt at the top of the mountain?
I pulled up images of her body, as if they would reveal something. In all of the pictures, she is swathed in cloth. Fading burgundy, camel, charcoal. She is supine. Her bent knees make a peak out of the rumpled material, and her arms are hidden. The lower portion of her face is a deep orange color; her top lip curls back to reveal long white teeth. Her nose is small—almost just a pair of nostrils now. The top portion of her face fades to mustard, and her eyes look like two black slits etched into skin. Her chin tilts toward sky.
In the epilepsy wing of Duke University Hospital, there was a girl, a patient, who appeared in a large portrait. The patient’s body, bound to a hospital bed, mirrored the mummy’s. In the photo, the patient rests in the fetal position: knees pulled toward chest, eyes glassily aimed above the camera. Twenty-six electrodes erupt prismatic from her scalp. The wires winnow to a long gauze-covered tail. Around the patient’s neck, a heart monitor and the electrode sensors hang. A wire stemming from the cranium leashes her to a port in the ground. A nurse—brunette, makeup perfectly applied—pretends to attach an electrode to the girl’s greasy scalp.
This picture is static artifact. Without context, this image of my body, wan and wired, placed in the epilepsy ward, suggested that I was a patient with epilepsy. Visitors to the hospital had no way of knowing that in my current life, I just won second place in a marathon, I teach at the university, and I am five months away from earning my PhD. How easily a symptom can become a story. A quick shutter of a camera stealing a part but not the whole. How many people have walked past my portrait and pitied me or prayed? How many have built narratives imagining where I am now?
My photo once hung like an emblem on the wall while my body remained inscrutable. After years of testing and appointments with various specialists, I still don’t have a clear diagnosis. No curtain lifted, no spotlight. Skull as museum case, interior artifact unknown.
Archaeologists use the term “formation process” to acknowledge the influences of environment, culture, and human interaction on both the creation and alteration of archaeological sites. In the case of the mummy found atop Mount Ampato, we might think about the effects of the natural freezing process that originally mummified her. The influence of her five-hundred-year entrapment in ice. The spray of hot ash that revealed her. The hands of the men who lifted her from the rocks, the way her body was jostled on the back of a mule as they wound down the mountain. The scalpels and hands that pried her open. Her body has been altered—maybe in unknowable ways—by the various human and natural processes she has been subjected to since her death.
Within studies of history, there is room for shape-shifting. This gives me comfort. Perhaps instead of considering my body as broken artifact, I can think of myself as palimpsest, something influenced, though not overtaken, by those who have studied my internal waves, revealed my fragilities, given the gift of care to my body, lent their voices when mine could not be coaxed into coherence. I imagine rewritten lines, whole memories, and erasure. The doctor’s notes scrawled across my thighs, my mother’s voice loping across my forehead, song of my lost memories erased from my mouth. Autobiographies written neatly on my palms.
For years I have wanted to write a cohesive narrative, something I envisioned as full cloth, but there will always be elusive artifacts, secrets buried with a past self. There is beauty to be found in mining hidden histories, but also, in letting them rest.
What happened to you while you were gone? Quixotic refrain, unanswerable question. There is no set of ordered events to add to a date book, no list of symptoms to give to my mother. But there is this, a memory glinting from beneath topsoil. I dig. Brush until it is resplendent. Hold it in my hands.
In the memory, our class bus in Peru lurches up and up, straight into sky. We stop when we reach a brief plateau, where a small marker announces our height: 16,109 feet above sea level. My body feels hollow, legs wavering like stalks of grass on the pampa. All around is rock and atmosphere. Slate. An unblemished blue above. I want to yield to the openness.
But the land isn’t as empty as it originally seems. Though at first my eyes trick me into seeing a surface with only the slight pocks of a planet, there is more texture. All around, thousands and thousands of smooth round rocks have been stacked into towers. Larger rocks at the bottom, pebbles balanced precariously on top.
“These are called apachetas,” Raul says from somewhere behind me. He walks to stand beside me, hands in his pockets. He has shed his wry smile and jokes; he seems reverent. “The source where the flow begins.”
“What do they mean?”
“Prayers,” Raul says. “They are like a sacrifice to a god, or a way for people to find direction.”
I nod, keeping my eyes on the towers. I imagine palms cradling cold stones. Heads bowed as hands pursue balance. I consider joining my classmates collecting rocks by the side of the road, building their own prayers to who knows where. But something in me resists. I don’t know where to go, what god to beseech, how to ask for directions back to my own body. How do travelers find their way with so many paths to choose from? What if my tower tumbles, sends stones skittering across the mute?
I stand with Raul until he calls our class back to the bus. As everyone traipses toward us, all alpaca beanies and rainbows of ponchos and striped baggy pants from the market, Raul, whom I have told about my history as an athlete, asks me a question: “You want to run?”
When I turn to look at him, I can see his crow’s feet, the way the wind has chapped his cheeks. I nod yes. Everyone boards the bus, and the vehicle chortles to life.
When the tail-end passes, I take my first step. Arms whispering forward, muscle quivering with memory. When I look up, Mount Ampato is ahead. I want to get closer, to see the empty palm of summit that once cradled a body. As the priests accompanied the girl to her place of sacrifice, they left apachetas and offerings along the trail. I imagine the girl, her muscle working against incline, eyes trained on the path ahead. I wonder if she paused to stack stones or if she kept walking. What stone was worth more than her body?
I consider what she was made into during her life: vessel, offering, artifact. After life: story, symbol, sex object, forensic subject, a set of statistics, “The Ice Maiden,” “Juanita.” But these identities so often obscure that she was a girl—is still a girl—with a real body and skin and a hand forever frozen in death grip, clutching the shawls she wore at the time she was killed. I want to acknowledge the narrative revealed in her hands and feet and face.
I run. My hamstrings burn already, lungs sear with lack of oxygen. Soon, I will stumble to a stop, my legs seeped of energy. Soon, I will board the bus, deliriously drunk on my final strides. Ampato will disappear behind the hairpin turns of an unfamiliar road. Within days, my frame will crumple on a bus ride and I will be flown home, lie in bed, not run for months. For years, at my desk, I will shape memories of bodies into words: girl bounding mid-step, legs outstretched with power; girl supine, a hand curled near face; girl climbing mountain, quadriceps striated; girl’s form slumped into the shape of incoherence, but held this time by someone who cares for her when she is vulnerable; girl hunched at desk, sifting through her own murky history, writing. I will learn to acknowledge what has disappeared and listen to the silences, which tell a story of their own.
But for now, I focus on the chant of my feet on the ground, the almost imperceptible shift of rock and dust I leave in my wake. I think of the mummy. She died once in body, but how often has she perished since then? Her body no longer a body but an artifact, buried beneath narratives. Something to dissect and keep contained. Something to ogle in a glass tomb. I keep my eyes trained on the thread of the girl’s last path up Mount Ampato, that sliver of sky, a point Incans believed would bring her closest to the gods. I want to cross the boundaries of time and language, to hear about her life and death as she would tell them. To look her in the eyes. To be the one to say I’m listening, I’m here. Tell me what happened to you while you were gone.