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Koening Of The River

 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 newspaper.
"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.

Poem by Derek Walcott
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