The Holy Family at the Border by Margaret Pritchard Houston

By Wasafiri Editor on December 20, 2019 in Poetry

They have walked all night

through the desert,

this couple: José y Maria

and the baby.

duermete mi niño

duermete por favor.

Por favor.

Their English isn’t great –

they’ve got a bit.

Yes sir. No sir. Thank you sir. They’ve got that down pat.

For the guards with their sunglasses, sidearms,

they know these abstract holy words: Asylum. Sanctuary.


They have walked all night,

and for a few weeks before, they have been

on highways, and dirt roads with donkeys.

They know about donkeys.

The baby reached for a velvet ear, babbling, eyes bright.

Once, a man let Maria ride it for a while, resting,

the baby in her arms. El burro, she whispered,

Jesús, mira. El burro.


And behind them, there are other families

with boys in their arms.


And behind them the ravaging shadows of the soldiers

kicking down your door,

churning with adrenaline and coke and permission:

Herod’s orders.


Herod, the master, the cancer, disaster and saviour,

the last line of freedom against the rampaging Empire

knocking at your door, the saviour of Judea, the freedom, the leader,

without me, you get Caesar.

Herod, western suited, Cuban cigars,

a sash of tribal fabric

to show he’s one of ours.


Maria holds the baby,

her breast in his mouth,

milk like manna in this desert

like water from the hard rock of her body,

muscled and sunburned.

Her t-shirt hiked up.

The icons showing this moment, serene,

this scene an enactment of a prophecy,

an it-was-written dream.

But here

in the desert

with the soldiers at her heels,

she feels

they left the angels behind long ago.

And ahead

is a wall

barbed wire, the fire

of five hundred years of ships and guns and gold

and here

at the border

the father raises his arms

and begs help

from the mirror-eyed men with weapons:

we have the child.


Margaret Pritchard Houston’s work has appeared in Mslexia, Acumen, The Blue Nib, and elsewhere. Her novel, Fraternite, was serialised by Pigeonhole and her play based on the life of Alexander the Great received four-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe. When she isn’t writing, or trapped under cats, you can find her on Twitter at @HoustonMargaret