Friday, September 5, 2008

[fiction] Friday: Naphta's Mountain

This week's prompt: Quick Change
Pick a book of fiction you’d never read (e.g., if you read sci-fi, pick a romance). Open to a random page and read the last couple paragraphs of the page. DO NOT TURN THE PAGE. Now continue writing the story. Feel free to change the genre as you write.
I took Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain which I definitely do not intend to read, it''s one of Dave' high brow literature books. Having just finished reading 100 Years of Solitude I was inspired to tinkle with some magical realism, then decided to combine it with speculative fiction in a post apocalyptic landscape. Shaken not stirred ... hope you don't choke on the olive!

Naphta's Mountain
“He has taken much pains to influence me for my good. But never, summer or winter, have I seen him wear anything but those checkered trousers and that threadbare double breasted coat. He wears the old things with great dignity, there is something gallant about him, I agree with you there. The way he does it is a triumph over poverty – I like better to see it than little Naphta’s elegance, that always seems suspicious – a work of darkness, as it were, and he gets the money for it in some hole-and-corner way, I understand.”

Naph looked over to the impossibly old man, who never aged, sitting in the corner of what had been the kitchen when the house stood. The old man seemed oblivious to the fact that he was dead and now, that the house was all but gone.

He hated it when the old man talked to someone as if Naph wasn’t there. Ever since he was a child Naph had been able to see Hans Castrop, his Great-Great-Grandfather. His mother clipped him around the ears, making them throb for hours when Naph insisted that he saw an old man sitting there, talking to him. So Naph shut up and kept old man Hans as his own personal secret. He knew it was Hans, identified from the old brown photos had mother kept in a shoe box in her wardrobe.

“If you’re trying to warn me against selling the visas old man, I’m not listening.” The diatribe on dignity in poverty pushed Naph’s buttons.

But Naph’s words were false bravado. The man foretold the future in his cryptic one sided conversations. That was how Naph avoided the fall out from the water crisis. Stocked up on water, food and reading material Naph had forced himself into the old crypt on Ann Street under the cover of dark, rolled out his father’s tattered swag and lay with an ancient copy of Mad as the cataclysm broke above the next morning. Naph was patient - and he’d waited it out, enjoying the solitude. It was the equivalent of a luxury holiday, Castrop style, except the smell of his own shit got to him in the end. But by then it was over.

When he’d gone back out into a world, squinting in the light and choking on the smoke, he no longer recognised the city he’d been born and raised in. Nothing had been left untouched and decomposing bodies lay every where. He’d vomited at first at the sight and the stench, but then he’d got used to it. The dead often had treasure on them, no good to them in death. The police were shooting dogs to stop them feasting on the bloated carnage. That was the closest they got to law and order.

The lines to the Embassy compound were long, and grew each day with little movement forward, as the people became refugees in their own city, waiting for Government permission to be moved to a safe location. Naph’s generation had never owned a car, never gone beyond the enclave of their own city and now they were totally reliant on the Government to facilitate their escape. Those old enough to remember the freedom of a car, rankled against the Government’s inactivity.

Naph heard that some with money or jewellery, or young children to offer up as bribes got into the Embassy. But then stories began to circulate, that even getting into the Embassy didn’t ensure a visa, and rumours that there was actually no one left in the Embassy. The realisation dawned on those trapped in Brisbane. The Government wasn’t going to help them find a safe location – people stopped believing that one existed.

It was pure chance that Naph had come on the visas … found them in the pocket of a dead dude around the corner from his house. He decided he’d take his chance.

Naph jabbed the smouldering butt of the cigarette onto the floor.
“Dignity in poverty, that’s what he gifted me. Little Naphta should have learnt that, but he was deaf and blind to the lessons given to him and found his own end – peace in the darkness when the SS got him and shot him in the head. All that money, it had found its way into his hands but it couldn’t buy his way out of the ghetto as a Jew. They said that he looked stylish even with half his head missing and that was the audacity of it all, the little Naphta could.”

Naph stood up, swung his heavy black market military boot into the decrepit milk crate and watched the brittle plastic shattered against the bricks that made up half a wall. So old Naphta didn’t get out – so what.

“There aint no dignity in having nothing – of dying like a dog here. Better a bullet in the head trying and then fucking off to whatever comes after this shit life. You could learn a few things from him Pops.”

The old man sat, dusting the eternal and non existent dirt from his shabby cap, ignoring Naph. Then Hans began to hum a discordant tune that was long forgotten, as he readjusted the cap over his sparse grey head and sat back, waiting for something to happen. Sometimes Naph thought he was more an annoyance to Hans than the other way around.

Naph snaked his hands through the pile of bricks that had once been a chimney and pulled the relocation visas from within. The choking sense of betrayal welled up in Naph throat. He coughed, then gagged but it remained lodged in his throat. He was leaving the old man behind, leaving without saying good bye, or inviting him to come with him – to venture out of the house for the first time in a century. It wasn’t as if the old man needed a visa to make the check point, just slip out along with him.

But he couldn’t and without a word Naph crawled out the side of one of the partially collapsed walls. He walked with a relaxed grace, incongruous with the post apolytic moonscape of the once trendy New Farm area. He was heading down into The Valley and the façade of China Town. As the sun rose to it’s zenith he quickly walked down a steep set of stairs, ensuring no one was watching him, to the thriving illegal coffee house below.

“Dignity in poverty comrade,” the man greeted without looking up to him, as he sat down. He stuffed the green beanie into his pocket.
Naph jerked his head in a nod and sat down opposite, withdrew a cigarette and puffed away without offering one to the man, who inhaled deeply the second hand smoke.

“Have you got the money?”
The man placed a roll of notes on the table.“My entire life savings comrade.”
Naph picked up the roll and sat slowly and deliberately counting the notes - he’d never held so much cash. He was glad that money had never gone out of fashion – that unlike cars, it was something that people simply refused to give up. Reaching down inside the front of his dirty jeans he took out two visas, saving the third for himself.

The man snatched them off Naph before they had even hit the table, frantically checked that the stamps were official and had valid dates for travel. Without another word he got up, pulled the beanie back on and left the coffee house. Naph lingered, finishing off the last of the man’s coffee and ignoring everyone else. Peeling off two notes as he stood, Naph pushed them into the owner’s hands and walked out.

Back out in the daylight Naph felt a rush of freedom and he set off towards the crypt to collect his travelling gear.
The voice came from behind and Naph immediately recognised the cadence and the tone, the unmistakeable feeling of a muzzle of a gun jammed into his back. He was directed back towards the stairs, to where the man in the green beanie stood.

“Is this him?”
The man nodded.
“Scooby Doo.”
The gun jabbed into his back, bringing tears to his eyes.
“Naphta Castrop.”

“Naphta Castrop you are charged with theft, possession and sale of prohibited documents.”
“Hold on, I didn’t steal them.”
“Naphta Castrop you are charged with possession and sale of prohibited documents.”
“Shouldn’t you be out shooting dogs?” Naph said, feeling the last of his bravado ebb away replaced with the overwhelming sensation of wanting to pee himself.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

The pressure of the gun forced Naph to his knees.
“Naphta Castrop you have been found guilty on both counts.”
“Let me …,” begged Naph, as the bullet tore through his cranium.

“Times are a-changing boy,” Hans said, reaching down to help his Great-Great-Grandson up, as the policeman walked away, stuffing all three visas into his pocket.
Naph looked down at the blood soaked green beanie of the other man and felt unsteady on his feet.
“It’s OK.” the old man assured him. “I’ve been waiting for you. It takes a bit to get your grounding, but you’ll be fine,” as he clapped him good humouredly on the back and they walked in silence together out of The Valley, and in the opposite direction to home.


Annie said...

Like cockroaches, its nice to see MAD comic survives even the most torrid history. beautfiully woven, keeping the reader tense right to the end...

Wild Iris said...

The end was a bit of a twist, though even in re-reading it I was still a bit unsure what happened in the end, but I think I've got it. I love the pacing and rythym of this, Jodi. Well done as usual.

~willow~ said...

lovely! I was hooked early on, and had to keep reading, wondering just where you were going with it (post-apocalyptic tale, reminds me of Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn series - onw of my faves!). I really liked the image of the great-great-grandfather helping his now-a-fellow-ghost descendant up and into the afterlife. Nice :)

Jodi Cleghorn said...

Willow - thanks for the reference. I will have to look up Iobelle Carmody. I didn't realise how much of an impact Marquez's had on me. I just loved the way he wove the unbelievable into the believable.

Iris - welcome back. Have missed you! The end was a bit of a twist for me too. He just rocked up and offered his hand to Naph ... sort of made it all make sense - he'd been hanging around waiting for Naph to die. That's why only Naph could see him!

Paul said...

Not being familiar with the original text, I think it's well done that I can't tell where the join is - I'm sure it's somewhere in the first few paragraphs, but I can' pinpoint the exact place.

As it should be.