Deeper and deeper, they meandered down the river,
through oxbow lakes, slicing through
the brown sludge, picking up mud and silt
as they coursed along in rickety barges.
Seafarers from another land,
they jostled for position on the river's shoulder,
driving through hinterland that would pull
them in but later call itself theirs.
A coarse rustling in trees nearby made them
aware of their own presence, a conspicuous
murmur of vines – the knowledge that
someone else had been there before.
Porcelain jars, lacquerwork
and ceramics laboured in the damp hold,
offsetting the wares they would be exchanged for;
beeswax, rattan, precious resin, bounty of the forest.
They were on the lookout for birds nests,
the flimsy woven spit that hardened into diamonds,
held in a giant cleft of hill or rocky outcrop
that sprung to life in a cauldron of bats.
Fears moistened. The surrounding plains
could muster an uprising, upset their course
and flood the river's bank. Crocodiles, aroused
by ripples in the mangrove, thrashed in their mating.
Hours later, the canopy slipped off its vegetation
and announced a clearing – an abandoned outpost.
Or was it razed in a feud? Night descended on them,
swapping crestfallen looks with a burnt patch of earth.
Having come all the way in, there would be
no turning back. The current yielded no progress,
the water stilled and lapped the bank softly,
levelling its mud flat against the stranded boat.
No choice now but to alight and set up store.
Even the ground stood firm against their intrusion
as fireflies switched their torches on in the gloom
and the hornbill's bright dagger beckoned from afar.