The Sphinx

After Luc-Olivier Merson's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt"

Impervious, for a thousand years I have watched
soldiers, traders, and streams of the wretched pass over
this land I guard, and I have watched the wind sculpt
into sinuous nothing every sign of their passing.

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I saw the exiles coming from a long way off, just
as the light began to fail. While my day’s heat leached
into the sand, the man made a small, stern fire
and the woman nursed her babe, her enigma face reading mine.

No doubt they wondered, in their silence and their hunger,
what welcome or terror my country would offer,
what price it would claim from their bodies,
what threat it would hear in the language of their prayers.

An hour draped darkness over us all. The beast cropped
the dry scrub, the man drew his cloak over his head. I thought
the woman would nestle the child in a cradle of sand, curve
herself into the bows of their bodies, and dream of home.

But when the sky seemed to sip the curl of smoke up
into its dusky belly, she rose, the child in her arms aglow
with milk and good health. At the plinth she sank her feet
into the warm sand, treading up and down like a cat.

Her joy lashed me. I felt my every edge whittled
and surface pocked by years of empty dawns, felt
the chiselers’ mask slip so that I became neither man nor
beast but mere element again: unmoved, unhewn rock.

She knew. She climbed. She settled their tender
flesh between my claws, entrusted me with their rest.
Now they are my country too. I turned my gaze to the heavens,
and in the smoky sea of night, I could almost see the stars.

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