Koening knew now there was no one on the river.
Entering its brown mouth choking with lilies
and curtained with midges, Koenig poled the shallop
past the abandoned ferry and the ferry piles
coated with coal dust. Staying aboard, he saw, up
in a thick meadow, a sand-colored mule,
untethered, with no harness, and no signs
of habitation round the ruined factory wheel
locked hard in rust, and through whose spokes the vines
of wild yam leaves leant from overweight;
the wild bananas in the yellowish sunlight
were dugged like aching cows with unmilked fruit.
This was the last of the productive mines.
Only the vegetation here looked right.
A crab of pain scuttled shooting up his foot
and fastened on his neck, at the brain’s root.
He felt his reason curling back like parchment
in this fierce torpor. Well, he no longer taxed
and tired what was left of his memory;
he should thank heaven he had escaped the sea,
and anyway, he had demanded to be sent
here with the others – why get this river vexed
with his complaints? Koenig wanted to sing,
suddenly, if only to keep the river company –
this was a river, and Koenig, his name meant King.
They had all caught the missionary fever:
they were prepared to expiate the sins
os savages, to tame them as he would tame this river
subtly, as it flowed, accepting its bends;
he had seen how other missionaries met their ends –
swinging in the wind, like a dead clapper when
a bell is broken, if that sky was a bell –
for treating savages as if they were men,
and frightening them with talk of Heaven and Hell.
But I have forgotten our journey’s origins,
mused Koenig, and our purpose. He knew it was noble,
based on some phrase, forgotten, from the Bible,
but he felt bodiless, like a man stumbling from
the pages of a novel, not a forest,
written a hundred years ago. He stroked his uniform,
clogged with the hooked burrs that had tried
to pull him, like the other drowning hands whom
his panic abandoned. The others had died,
like real men, by death. I, Koenig, am a ghost,
ghost-king of rivers. Well, even ghosts must rest.
If he knew he was lost he was not lost.
It was when you pretended that you were a fool.
He banked and leaned tiredly on the pole.
If I’m a character called Koenig, then I
shall dominate my future like a fiction
in which there is a real river and real sky,
so I’m not really tired, and should push on.
The lights between the leaves were beautiful,
and, as in that far life, now he was grateful
for any pool of light between the dull, usual
clouds of life: a sunspot haloed his tonsure;
silver and copper coins danced on the river;
his head felt warm – the light danced on his skull
like a benediction. Koenig closed his eyes,
and he felt blessed. It made direction sure.
He leant on the pole. He must push on some more.
He said his name. His voice sounded German,
then he said ‘river’, but what was German
if he alone could hear it? Ich spreche Deutsch
sounded as genuine as his name in English,
Koenig in Deutsch, and, in English, King.
Did the river want to be called anything?
He asked the river. The river said nothing.
Around the bend the river poured its silver
like some remorseful mine, giving and giving
everything green and white: white sky, white
water, and the dull green like a drumbeat
of the slow-sliding forest, the green heat;
then, on some sandbar, a mirage ahead:
fabric of muslin sails, spiderweb rigging,
a schooner, foundered on black river mud,
was rising slowly up from the riverbed,
and a top-hatted native reading an inverted
‘Where’s our Queen?’ Koenig shouted.
‘Where’s our Kaiser?’
The nigger disappeared.
Koenig felt that he himself was being read
like the newspaper or a hundred-year-old novel.
‘The Queen dead! Kaiser dead!’ the voices shouted.
And it flashed through him those trunks were not wood
but that the ghosts of slaughtered Indians stood
there in the mangrroves, their eyes like fireflies
in the green dark, and that like hummingbirds
they sailed rather than ran between the trees.
The river carried him past his shouted words.
The schooner had gone down without a trace.
‘There was a time when we ruled everything,’
Koenig sang to his corrugated white reflection.
‘The German Eagle and the British Lion,
we ruled worlds wider than this river flows,
worlds with dyed elephants, with tassled howdahs,
tigers that carried the striped shade when they rose
from their palm coverts; men shall not see these days
again; our flags sank with the sunset on the dhows
of Egypt; we ruled rivers as huge as the Nile,
the Ganges, and the Congo, we tamed, we ruled
you when our empires reached their blazing peak.’
This was a small creek somewhere in the world,
never mind where – victory was in sight.
Koenig laughed and spat in the brown creek.
The mosquitoes now were singing to the night
that rose up from the river, the fog uncurled
under the mangroves. Koenig clenched each fist
around his barge-pole scepter, as a mist
rises from the river and the page goes white.