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Nemo and Kafka in Peredia

by Gary Inbinder

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
— Milton, Samson Agonistes

Mr. Nemo and his friend, Kafka the Cat, strolled along the Los Diábolos Park bike trail on their way to the Pyrites Gate Bridge. The asphalt strip bordered a breakwater leading to the harbor entrance and the great suspension bridge that linked the Peredia Peninsula to the mainland and the metropolis of Los Diábolos.

Suddenly, Kafka scampered into the tall grass bordering the trail. He returned presently, his jaws clenching a half-dead mouse. Kafka played with the unfortunate rodent for a moment before delivering the coup de grace with a swift bat of his razor-sharp claws. “Pardon me for the diversion, Mr. Nemo. As you know, my cat nature compels me to do such things.”

“Nemo understands; we are what we are.” Mr. Nemo and Kafka were going to the annual Peredia Pensioners’ Diving Competition; our two friends would participate as judges. Each year, new retirees entered a lottery. Those who drew high numbers received benefits. Those who drew low numbers had a choice; they could join the diving competition, or retire to a state camp.

The camps had a first-year mortality rate of ninety-nine percent. The competition had an advertised — and very acceptable — survival rate of one in three, and the government assured the survivors benefits for the remainder of their natural lives. Therefore, preferring a sporting chance to none, most “short-straw” retirees chose to compete.

The state randomly selected the Diving Competition judges, who received compensation for their services. Mr. Nemo would receive one month’s worth of food stamps and a quart of Jolly Roger one-hundred and fifty proof rum. Kafka would get a can of tuna and two catnip mice.

Nemo and Kafka arrived at the esplanade near the bridge, where a guard directed them to the judges’ registration line. High chain-link fences crowned with electrified barbed wire cordoned the area; surly black-leather jacketed guards armed with sub-machine guns patrolled vigilantly. One guard led a snarling Doberman on a leash. The dog spotted Kafka and began barking obstreperously. Kafka stared at the Doberman, stuck out his tongue and gave him the raspberry: “Mew-Mew!”

The snarling canine reared on its hind legs, foamed at the mouth and jerked violently at its leash; the burly handler tugged at the enraged dog’s choke collar. Eventually, the guard got his Doberman under control and walked it in the opposite direction, but not before both dog and master shot sanguinary glares at our friends.

“Does Kafka think it wise to taunt a Doberman, especially one that works for the state?” Mr. Nemo inquired.

“A cat must do what a cat must do,” Kafka mewed tautologically.

Nemo and Kafka arrived at the registration table. An official grunted her demand without looking up. “Your judicial duty summons and picture I.D.” Our friends handed over their documents. The official checked their papers against her records and glanced up — or down, in Kafka’s case — to compare their appearance to the pictures. Convinced that our friends were on the up and up, she date-stamped and filed the summonses, tore off stubs and handed them, along with the I.D. cards, to Kafka and Mr. Nemo. She made an entry in her registration book before muttering, “Go to security checkpoint B.” Our friends followed her instructions, and the official shouted, “Next!”

At the checkpoint, police subjected the judges to full-cavity strip-searches. Our friends bore the indignity patiently, though both yowled piteously when a sniggering security guard probed their rectums with cold, rubber-clad digits. Later, Kafka licked his violated behind while Nemo whined, “Thank goodness that’s over.”

“Yes, the things one must endure for tuna and catnip.” Kafka mewed.

“Not to mention rum and food stamps,” Nemo observed as he rubbed his sore rump. However, after a moment’s reflection, he added, “But of course, we have the honor of performing our civic duty.” Mr. Nemo said this loudly so the guards would notice his patriotic attitude.

“We do have that honor,” Kafka meowed skeptically.

A husky female guard approached our friends and directed her first comment to Kafka. “Citizenship isn’t all rum and food stamps — or rather, I should say catnip and tuna. You should be grateful for the rights guaranteed your species by the Sentient Beings’ Equal Rights Act of 2064.”

“Most felines have been willing to do our share of heavy lifting in order to secure our rights.” Kafka meowed firmly, but with ingratiating charm, having had experience manipulating his former mistress, who was now his domestic partner according to the new law.

“I’m glad to hear that, citizen cat,” said the austere official. She walked to Kafka, leaned over and petted his neck fur. She gave him a wide white-toothed smile and whispered, “So you’re the cocky little kitty who stuck his tongue out at a fierce guardian of the state.”

Kafka the Cat stared into the official’s eyes and purred. The official, who was a secret cat lover, succumbed briefly to feline winsomeness. However, she soon stopped petting, snapped to attention and instructed our friends with appropriate sternness. “Mr. Nemo and Kafka the Cat, you have been chosen to participate in an important civic duty, which you should consider an honor and a privilege.”

“Oh, indeed we do, Madame Official,” averred Nemo and Kafka.

The guard smiled. “Very well, you may be seated.” Nemo and Kafka tested the cold, damp stone bench gingerly with their aching posteriors, while the official struggled to suppress her amusement at our friends’ discomfort. “Perhaps you would like seat cushions?”

“Oh yes, Madame Official,” they replied. “Cushions would be most welcome.”

The guard retrieved two pillows from a nearby table and handed them to Nemo and Kafka. “Of course, there will be a slight deduction in your compensation for the rental of the cushions.”

Our friends hung their heads. “How much of a deduction, Madame Official?” they asked.

“For the human, one-half quart of rum, and for the cat, one catnip mouse,” said she, with an impish upward curl of her dark red lips.

Our friends submitted without complaint, cowed by a government that could ream their behinds and then charge them for cushions to ease the pain. This practice was, in fact, part of an economic recovery plan intended to control wasteful government spending.

“Mr. Nemo and Mr. Cat, now that you are comfortably seated, I will explain your duties. You will observe the dives of three individuals, and will score each on a scale from zero to ten.” The official went on to give examples of great dives, good dives, bad dives, and awful ones with the tacit understanding that only the greatest of dives — the presumed one in three — would be survivable.

While Madame Official droned on, Nemo and Kafka diverted their attention to the bridge. The rust-colored structure seemed like a great sea bird soaring above the turbulent bay. A plank jutted from the pedestrians’ deck halfway across the bridge. From our friends’ perspective, the plank seemed tiny and distant, and a person standing upon it would appear to be little more than a large insect. Nemo and Kafka wondered what it would be like on that narrow, windblown platform more than two hundred feet above the dark, swirling waters of the Peredia inlet. Could one in three retirees truly survive such a dive?

“Are there any questions?” The guard spoke with a rough edge to her voice that denoted official impatience. Implicit in her tone was the sense that if they had questions, they had not been paying attention.

Nemo and Kafka wisely replied in the negative. The official handed them large white scorecards and black magic-markers with instructions to hold up their votes following each dive. Then, the official notified the guards on the bridge that the judges were ready for the first competitor. She turned to Nemo and Kafka. “The competition begins in five minutes,” she announced before walking off for a potty break.

With the official out of earshot, Mr. Nemo whispered to his friend; “Kafka, have you considered the moral implications of our participation in this event?”

“Hmmm,” Kafka meowed. “Survival of the fittest is an iron rule of the cat community. We felines are mostly Social Darwinists. When the lifeboat is full, those who cannot row go over the side. However, my beloved Nietzsche might have observed that in feline-human relationships, you are the masters and we are the slaves. Cute kittens are adept at manipulating humans, and some can continue that beneficial arrangement into old age.

“On the other hand, many humans abuse and abandon us without the slightest provocation and not a tweak of conscience, so our efforts at using your moral sense to our advantage have not been completely successful. C’est la vie.” At that moment, Madame Official emerged from the portable potty and our friends prudently clammed up.

The official spoke into her pocket transmitter, and then turned to our friends. “Mr. Nemo and Mr. Cat, the competition is about to begin. You will hear the sound of a horn announcing the first competitor. Please be attentive to your duty, and thank you for your service.”

Nemo and Kafka nodded and turned their attention to the plank. A klaxon’s blast echoed over the bay and the first retiree stepped gingerly onto the diving platform. Nemo and Kafka craned their necks and strained their eyes to get a better look at the squat, white-haired granny clad in a black diving suit. At a distance, they had difficulty making out her expression, but she seemed to be shaking violently. However, they could not tell whether her trembling was from terror or the cold, wind-whipped drizzle, although they imagined that it was probably the result of both.

The woman stood at the end of the plank for what seemed like an eternity. Then, she leaped from the board and plummeted toward the bay in what began as a swan dive, but ended in a splashing belly flop. The crew of a nearby motor-launch started its engine, cast-off and headed into the channel to retrieve the corpse.

“Oh my, that was awful.” Nemo moaned, and Kafka meowed mournfully. They both marked their scorecards with twos and held them high above their heads. Then, our friends lowered their cards and their eyes, unable to watch as the boat’s crew used grappling hooks to drag the body out of the bay.

Madame Official noticed the judges’ dejection and attempted to cheer them up. “There now, the first is always the worst, and only two more to go. Here’s something to buck you up.” She handed Nemo a stiff shot of rum and provided Kafka with catnip. Our friends thanked the official and took their restoratives.

A horn blast announced the next competitor. Their spirits revived, Nemo and Kafka concentrated on a mummy-like old man crawling onto the diving platform. A guard followed the wizened diver, providing encouragement with a long, aluminum prod. The scene reminded Kafka of prisoners forced to walk the plank on pirate ships. Still under the influence of catnip, he stood on his hind legs and began dancing a jig. Nemo sang, “Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum....” Madame Official joined in the merriment, clapping her hands and singing along.

The old man clung desperately to the plank while shouting something unintelligible to our friends. Suddenly, the aluminum prod shot at the man and struck him like a cue hitting a billiard ball. The screaming competitor lost his grip on the plank and tumbled, arms and legs flailing, into the dark waters of the bay.

“Oooof,” cried Nemo, “that was ugly. Like a bug splattering a windshield.”

Kafka stopped dancing. “Yes, it reminds me of when little Timmy threw old Grimalkin out a twentieth-floor window into the swimming pool.”

The sobered judges marked zeros on their scorecards and held them up for all to see. The boat crew recovered the second competitor’s remains.

Madame Official noticed our friends’ darkened mood; she tried to rouse up their enthusiasm. “You’re both doing fine, and only one more to go!”

“Yes, Madame Official, thank you,” they replied glumly. Then, they fixed their attention on the plank and awaited the inevitable horn-blast. The klaxon sounded, the final competitor appeared, and Nemo and Kafka could hardly believe their eyes. The man was tall, erect and very fit-looking, with an athlete’s body; despite his gray hair, he walked the plank with the vigor and assurance of a man in his prime.

He proceeded without hesitation to the precipitous edge, stood perfectly still for a breath, and then leaped into the void. Our friends gasped as the man executed spiraling twists and somersaults in his two-hundred foot plummet before straightening to break the surface as cleanly as a sharp razor slices a hair.

“Bravo! Magnificent!” cried Mr. Nemo and Kafka the Cat. Madame Official smiled. Our friends ran to the esplanade railing and gazed intently at the spot where the diver entered the bay. “Please, please,” they both whispered, as if praying for a miracle.

Suddenly, the diver breached the purple waves like a playful dolphin, his drenched rubber diving suit glistening in sunshine. He waved one arm and smiled at our friends. Then, he turned and swam toward the rescue boat. White doves circled the harbor and a rainbow arced over the Peredia inlet.

Mr. Nemo’s eyes filled with tears. “Nemo can see,” he cried. “Peredia is still beautiful and bright with hope.”

His more skeptical friend mewed softly, “Yes, Mr. Nemo, so it seems.” They returned to the bench, marked tens on their cards and held them high.

Madame Official approached our friends and handed them their somewhat reduced compensation. “Gentlemen, you have served honorably, and here is your reward.”

Our friends accepted their rum, food stamps, catnip and tuna gratefully, and bid Madame Official farewell. They were half-way to the security exit when she called out to them:

“Wait, you forgot your stickers!” Kafka and Nemo returned to the official’s table, where they each received an “I Judged” sticker. Madame Official opened her red lips in a great, toothy grin. “These are good for a free latte at your favorite café.”

“Thank you, Madame Official,” Nemo replied. He turned to Kafka, and declared cheerily, “We will go to Nemo’s favorite café and celebrate with our friends, Kafka the insurance adjustor, Kafka the bureaucrat, and Kafka the unemployed.”

“I can’t wait,” mewed Kafka the Cat.

“When you see your friends, don’t forget to spread the good news about the wonderful thing you have witnessed. Retirees really do have a sporting chance in our great state of Peredia.” Madame Official beamed beneficently. Our friends nodded in the affirmative, and left for the security gate. She watched until they exited the judging area, and then called the rescue crew on her transmitter. “They’re gone. How’s the android?”

“Good for five more dives,” replied the crew captain. “We’re sending him back to the platform now. In ten minutes, you can bring in the next pair of judges.”

“Roger that — over and out.”

Copyright © 2009 by Gary Inbinder

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