El Plomo mummy copy photo Jason Quinn

A brutal headline rekindles a poem I will never forget

Each night I take about 30 minutes to read news before I go to bed. For some reason, this usually relaxes me, a fact that confounds my husband. Last night, the opposite happened. I read a news story about a murder, and the details are permanently impressed on my memory. The story was about the killing of a baby. 

I began to read, and then I saw the photo of the baby who had died a horrendous death. The child was beautiful. She had light brown skin, similar to the complexion of my granddaughter. As I gazed at her photo, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to harm her. That she allegedly died at the hands of her grandmother made it even more horrific. The child’s mother is alive; she’s started a fundraiser to pay for the funeral she says. Few details other than the gruesome killing were given.

Once I read the story, I remembered a poem I read two decades ago. The poem is titled, “Mummy at El Plomo: An Offering.” It’s written by Wanda S. Praisner. I still tear up when I read the ending.

The poem is about child sacrifice. Discoveries dating to the 1950s in the high mountains in Chile have yielded a treasure trove of information about the Inca. We know more now about human sacrifices in the Inca culture than we once did. It’s unimaginable to me, the concept of child sacrifice, although I know that my ancient ancestors may have practiced human sacrifice too.

Praisner’s poem, like the news article about the murdered child whose name was Royalty Marie Floyd, always took me into a place of thoughtfulness, a place where the human condition could be relentlessly explored.

For me, poems are like songs. If I am touched spectacularly, I remember the poem.

I haven’t read much of Praisner’s work, but one of the books most cited in a Web search is titled, Where the Dead Are. The poem, “Mummy at El Plomo: An Offering” is in that collection. In this poem, Praisner takes the reader on a hard climb “up the Chilean Andes” alongside the child whose life will be given to whatever god the people wanted to please. The poet paints a complete picture of the journey, the contents of the tomb, the “corn beer or coca leaves/to ease the end—”, and by the poem’s end, you are there gazing at a life that was never to be fulfilled:

“Was his mother among those
who praising the gods
turned away and left him
huddled into himself,
head tilted, resting on raised
knees, arms encircling—

A countenance so life-like,
that even after
five hundred  years
it seems a touch or word
could wake him,
tell him it is time
to go home.”

Breathtaking poem. Breath-binding news story. Not a good combination for bedtime reading. Sometimes my husband is right.

The child mummy at El Plomo is believed to have been 8 or 9 years old at the time of his death.

Little Royalty was 20 months old when she was murdered.

Featured Photo: A photo of the replica of the Plomo Mummy on display at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Santiago, Chile. The child is believed to have been 8 or 9 years old at the time of his death. Photo taken 2009-May-24. (Photographer: Jason Quinn)

(Kay B. Day/Oct. 17, 2018)

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