Graham Cunningham is a contributor of articles and occasional poems to a number of cultural magazines in the UK, USA and Australia.
“The past is my only possession... my treasured book...in here, see?” The boatman clasps fur clad arms to his chest. Suddenly in my riverboat dream I am right there with him in a cacophony of sight and sound. “The hold of my barge is always full. I have my woman, I have done well. But these immediate moments - this here and now - does not overwhelm me. Look into my eyes...see... I journey into other places to the graves of the Slavs my brothers.” I hear the wind’s howl, the smoke stack’s cough the dull prop-shaft throb. He’s homeward bound. He calls after me “Look for the source of the river.” and sails south. I imagine I hear erelong his late night laughing telephone voice a buzzing wire above the railway tracks that straddle these vast steppes. We somnolent archaeologists now head north, feeling a kind of vertigo to be so high in space. Scratching now and labouring for bones and ancient pots for what has fallen, what has stood here beside this frozen lake. On a sudden gust of wind a tusk sticks out from the snow. We dig with shovels, sun in our eyes, and an eye gleams back at us. It sticks to my finger (I just had to touch). “Would you say we were the first?” says my comrade with a nervous grin. Who knows? Who knows what came from the stars and walked in the snow by Lake Baikal? We headed south and trekked long. We came against a hidden wall; though what was linked or what divided, a mystery now long forgotten. The great cold forest guards its secrets as but a whispering on the wind. Trees are growing in the wall and earth has caked its sides with moss. Ivy and daisies have taken root and crippled foxgloves bending for sun. The ghost of a face emerges from the moss: “They who do not speak this exact tongue, this wall is to keep them from me.” Its eyes stare out at the shimmering mountains of Qilian Shan “We are an old people we Chinese; we like to stare at the infinite.” It sighs:“The Mongol women beckon but we do not cross. I tell you when this wall is breached China will crumble”. Are walls the only protection? I dream now of an escape from walls and shores and lines of all kinds. I dream of my red Indian now wandering in his unwalled world across the deserted shores of the past where dusk and dawn is the only time. I trudge onward and eastwards till in a delirious blue mist. I see distant lights, white and floating cabins with spindly masts. Back then am I...returned to the Realm of the Need to Know? “And what’s a pretty girl like you, in your white coat, doing here making observations? Surely there’s nothing to observe?” “Ah Monsieur you joke with me. Here’s where eternity has crystalised. See...over by the mast, Phoenix with his broken mind sees the ghosts of horses and savages heading West. He believes - this Phoenix when he squints his eyes on magic days we call Eclipse – believes he sees herds of horses drifting on the Bering Straits. He sees his forefathers come from the forest, crossing the straits behind the horses.” Then she’s gone...Puff. The past is scattering me, strewing me across its frozen wastes. The past is dragging me; my hands clutch helpless as these momentary mice and men slip and slide towards and away from me. The eclipse is on me; my mouth deserts all my broken arguments. I see a warlord, his harem behind, steal away in confusion, belligerent and aggrieved as military drones scan the hill high above us all. Coloured lights of eventide glide across the sky I see silent hoards of the eternal dead marching back into the dawn of time. I turn again, my bearings gone, feeling a kind of vertigo to be so high in space as if North were really the top and South really the bottom.