<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 12

The thing with Berti Bischoff was already two years past, and a lot had happened in between. Berti got shipped to the front. There wasn’t any more Hitler Youth service.

And Phantom and ThinMan had changed their minds about a few things, and not just about the teacher’s son, as one day they were crouching in front of the rabbit hutch. They were observing August, Phantom’s Belgian buck, who had been sick for the past couple of days, and would hardly eat.

They heard the clatter of horse’s hooves, the rhythm of a gallop. It came closer. A window flew open and Grandpa Thiel cried, “It’s our own, they’re here, the Red Army!”

They leaped over the fence, but stayed there, backs against the fence.

What they saw was a man on a black horse, cloak flying behind him, fur hat on his head. He slowed the horse to a dancing pace, and cried out to all the houses, “Next week it’s all over, folks, Flandern has fallen!” He turned the horse sharply around. It reared up on its hind legs. The rider laughed a mad laugh, bellowing, “Death rode into Flandern!” They trotted back down the street, with the rider singing all the while, “Into Flandern death came a-riiiidinnnnng.

Then they jumped right over Merrick’s wall. They headed in the direction of the viaduct. The rider was Berti Bischoff.

Of course that was the only topic of conversation in the Quarter for the next few hours.

Around noon some field marshals came riding around in an open Mercedes, asking if anyone had seen a deserter on a horse. But the people didn’t tell the goons who the rider was.

That afternoon they were sitting on Merrick’s wall. Animal and Sparks had been out in Dohmann’s thicket all morning, inspecting the traps. They hadn’t spoken with anybody. They had to have the whole story explained to them, and of course they didn’t believe it.

They laughed. “There was a deer in one of the traps,” Animal said, “but we let it go. We were just too sorry for it.”

As ThinMan began once again on the red fur cap, black cloak, one leap over the wall, and sang for them, somberly, “Into Flandern death came a-riiiidinnnnng,” Animal got angry. Sparks too. “You can just go shuffling around in the bushes at the break of dawn yourselves next time, instead of sitting around swilling schnaps, have you ever heard such nonsense as what they’re telling,” etc etc.

They argued back and forth. Then Sugar said, “Hush, and listen, will you?”

And they heard, coming from the direction of the viaduct, the rumble of horse’s hooves. Also the furious honking of a car horn.

They saw the rider with his cloak flying. They came out of the viaduct at a breakneck pace, the belly of the black horse practically touching the ground. They raced down the street, right past them. Right behind them was the open Mercedes with the field marshals, staying right on top of them. Around the curve by Siepmanns’, there was the loud squeal of brakes, and they were gone.

Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach and Sugar Trietsch were sitting on Merrick’s wall, moving not a muscle. They heard the clatter of the horse and the honking of the horn, as both noises faded into the distance.

Someone cried from a window, “Ridiculous! Ridiculous!” ThinMan said, “Well?”

The next morning Sparks came over to the Spormanns’. He sat down at the table, and accepted a slice of bread. They talked about this and that, but Sparks kicked Phantom under the table a couple of times. They both left shortly after that.

“Guess who’s hiding in Bohr’s shed?” Sparks said.

“Damnation,” Phantom said.

Berti Bischoff was lying behind the wood box, hot, shivering, throwing his head back and forth, from side to side. They fetched blankets.

“Horses,” Berti whispered a couple of times. “Horses.” They didn’t understand anything else.

That night they laid him onto a stretcher. They carried him behind the houses, over the train tracks, through the gardens, and on up to Dohmann’s Hill. They took him into the cave, to Chahlie and Anna Kusnevski.

They had redecorated Kaspar Flehinghaus’ little apartment in Bones Grotto. There were rugs, blankets, a table, stools, chests, even a rocking chair, which Clemens had fashioned from an old child’s wagon. There was a large mattress, upon which Anna kept thin Chahlie from getting fat. There were carbide lamps and candles for light. They laid Berti out on the mattress, and Anna went to work. She gave him a shot. She made him a compress. “Bad, bad,” she kept saying.

And it was bad. For a whole week Berti lay there on the mattress, shivering. Then finally, slowly, he got better.

But he didn’t utter a single sentence. His hair was falling out in patches. A couple of times he babbled something about horses. Then he slept for a couple of days and nights straight, and after that he was hardly recognizable: pale, wrinkled, half bald.

They took him over to Clemens.

He had built himself a little hut out of thin pine trunks over in one of the grottoes. He had placed it so that the wall of the grotto formed the back wall of the hut. The hut had windows, and shutters even, completely unnecessary, since it was always dark in there. But Clemens fussed around morning and night with his little pine chateau, by the light of the carbide lamps, torches, and candles.

In no time he built another little house for Berti. They gave Berti eggs whipped in red wine. Everybody fussed over him. Slowly he regained his strength. But still he hardly said anything; just “Yes” or “No.” Sometimes he mumbled incoherently about horses.

Phantom and the others went visiting almost every day in Berti’s little hut. They sat around the table, everything built by Clemens or themselves, by the light of candles. Berti just sat on his plank bed and stared into the candlelight.

They tried to talk to him. They played skat and told stories. They were stories that Berti would have to be interested in. For instance Animal said, “Remember during the Armenian games, when it was Vienna against Schalke, where Schalke lost 10 to nothing, and there was a young player there – what was his name anyway? Oh yeah, Tull Harder.” And nonsense like that.

They noticed that Berti grew restless sometimes. Nonetheless, he didn’t seem to react when they said goofy things like that. Not even when Sparks told the story about Paul Janes, who used to play defense with Fortuna, but was now goalie with the 1FC’s of Nuerenburg. “But he was full of it anyway,” Sparks said. “I even had the chance to tie his shoes for him, during intermission, at the Friendship Games against 07.” Now, that was something Berti had really actually done once, and in former times Berti would have immediately punched someone who boasted of doing that himself. But now he just sat there.

The field marshals and the goons had given up the search for the crazy deserter after only a very short time. They found the black horse by the railroad tracks, grazing. They presumed that the turncoat had jumped onto a train headed east.

And so it was that Phantom and the others brought Berti back out into the open on a late September day, on the back side, by Stonewall Lake. The sun was still warm, and they swam a bit. Then they lay on the stones to dry themselves.

“Listen, Berti,” Phantom began, “if they catch you, they’ll kill you. Therefore you have to stay in the cave. You can only come out when one of us accompanies you. Have you got that?”

Berti said nothing. He just stretched himself out in the sun.

“But Berti is smart,” ThinMan said. “He doesn’t want to die.”

“Soon the war will be over, and we can all play together with TuS,” Sparks said. “You just watch, Berti will have the middle position, Egon on the right, Hansi and ThinMan will take the outside. Phantom will be the middle runner. The right runner will be Animal.” Sparks put all the best men on the TuS team. He included a couple of names from the opposing 07’s. At each name they laughed loudly and scornfully.

“Well, Berti,” Animal asked, “wouldn’t that be a game?”

Berti nodded.

ThinMan stood up, and held a rock up in front of his mouth as though it were a microphone. He began reporting, “There, he’s breaking through, Berti Bischoff the Blond Bomber, the Ripper. He’s kicked the leather over to lightning-fast Waldemar Niehus, AKA ThinMan. Always in the style which is his trademark, this Viennese Waltzer is dancing down the field, yes I said dancing...”

“Flying down the field like an angel,” Animal interrupted. He jumped up. ThinMan was running after him.

They ran into the water and had a water fight. “Hey,” Sugar said, stroking Berti’s stomach, “good times, huh?”

Berti nodded.

They all played a round of waterball, but Berti didn’t join in that either.

Later the sun began going down, right into the trough behind Rehschopp’s corral beyond the meadow. It was looming ever larger. An owl, dark and silent, flew over the enclosure.

Sparks made a fire in the style of the Prairie Indians: branches laid out in the form of a star, and in the middle, a small fire. From time to time he would push the ends slightly closer in, so that it burned, but gave off no smoke. They had some chunks of pork fat, courtesy of Animal’s efforts. They roasted them and ate them. Phantom played his harmonica. Sonata in A Major, by Mozart.

And Berti said, “I have a plan.”

Sonata in A Major, by Mozart, ended abruptly. A chunk of fat fell from Sparks’ mouth. Everybody looked at Berti. Then in the middle of the silence ThinMan said, “Well, let’s hear it.”

And Berti let forth. “As you well know, the Western Allies are almost at the Rhine. All the reserves will now be thrown to the Western front, to halt their advance, and to delay the ultimate overthrow of Hitler’s army. This is the hour for the Partisans.

“The Fascists’ plans to shore up their troops must now be frustrated by swift actions against their depots, wagons, trains, streets, and bridges. We,” Berti said, “will have to be the core, to build a Partisan army. Further recruitment will be child’s play. Everywhere there are forced laborers and prisoners-of-war, just waiting for their day of freedom. They want to fight. For a long time now the mood of the general army has been against Hitler. At the very first successes of the Partisans, they’ll switch sides, by the company. But the question now is, how do we begin.”

The moon was full and yellow. It climbed high over the rock cliff. The lake mirrored its reflection. And Berti the Partisan leader stood in front of the moon, surveying his troops.

“First thing,” he said, “is to arrange for horses and weapons.”

“Yeah, right, horses,” Phantom said. “Come on, Berti, it’s time to go back into the cave.”

“Let him be,” Sparks said. “What he’s talking about isn’t so crazy.”

“We’ll have to operate out of the forest,” Berti continued. “We’ll go from farm to farm for our goods. The farmers will be on our side. If not, we’ll use pre-emptive war rights. We’ll build units of eleven men, the ideal number for guerilla operations.”

And Berti talked and talked. The moon climbed higher, and the lake shimmered, and the horses whinnied in Rehschopp’s corral. Berti had paused. They sat around, looking at the moon, dreaming. And Berti said, “Ride ride ride, through the day, through the night, through the day, ride ride ride. No more mountains, hardly any trees, past foreign huts on dried-up streams.”

Animal said, “But think about the mountain rebels, what they did to them, to Ballsass for instance.”

The mountain rebels, or Edelweiss Pirates, as they called themselves, had been a band who practiced street butchery on the Hitler Youth and on the police. They blew up munitions depots. They set the forced laborers free. Their main headquarters had been in the forest near Barmen. Then the SS made a concerted attack on them. Not one of them came out alive. They hung Ballsass from a telephone pole.

“But that was two years ago,” Berti said, “still too soon. Now the time is ripe. A couple of weeks is all, and then the Americans will be here, and we can ride with them into town.”

Phantom said, “That is pure fantasy.”

“No,” Berti cried, “we want to, we have to do it! Think of the Russian Partisans. They aren’t much older than us. And the French, the Italians, the Croatians, the Serbs. Everybody else is fighting. We’re the only ones just sitting around, hiding in caves like scared animals.”

Phantom said, “Yeah, but in those places it’s everybody fighting, the whole population. Look around you. Here, it’s nothing but Nazis everywhere.”

“You,” Berti cried, “you don’t dare look past the train tracks! That’s your horizon. You want to live from apartment to factory to bar and back, all your life, just like your fathers? Small, small, never daring anything big,” etc etc.

“He’s going to talk us silly,” Phantom thought, as they went back into the cave and then later back home. Nobody said a word.

But then by the door to his house Animal said, “But we do have weapons.”

“Leave it,” Phantom said.

Then he went upstairs. He couldn’t sleep. He got back out of bed and went to the window, gazing at the moon. Karheinz woke up. “What is it? Alarm?” he asked.

“No,” Phantom said. He turned around and looked at his brother, who was lying in the lower bunk. He pulled the blankets up and turned over, towards the wall. “Listen,” Phantom said, “what do you know about Partisans?”

“They’re good,” Karlheinz said. “Now go to sleep.”

“No,” Phantom said, “I mean here, among us.”

“Ridiculous,” Karlheinz said. But then he turned over immediately and asked sternly, “So what have you done now? What craziness are you up to?”

“Oh, come on,” Phantom said, “I’m just asking.” He climbed back up into his bunk.

Karlheinz rolled himself a cigarette and smoked it, holding it cupped in his hand. “Listen,” Phantom began again, “everywhere else they’re fighting the Fascists. Partisans. I mean real fighting, with weapons, and we....”

“We’re fighting too,” Karlheinz said, “only under different conditions and with different weapons. That’s the only thing you can do here.”

“Says who?” Phantom asked.

“What nonsense are you spouting now?” Karlheinz asked. “Think of Papa, or Karl from Dortmund, or Stash and all the others. You think they’re idiots? You know exactly who’s behind all this.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Phantom said, “the eternal arch-enemy.”

“So that, I trust, is the end of that,” Karlheinz said very sharply. “It’s the full moon. It has always affected you. So go to sleep now. You should be glad there’s no alarm tonight.” And he put his cigarette out.

Phantom slept poorly that night. He dreamed of burning farmhouses, and horses. He had cartridge belts slung crosswise over his chest, he was wearing a broad- brimmed hat, and he was riding riding riding.

He ate his bread unenthusiastically the next morning. He looked past his mother out over the tracks, at the factory, then back to the tracks.

“Do you really like it here?” he asked. He motioned at the view out the window. “The railroad tracks, the factory, the houses, then sitting in bars, your whole life long.”

“Bars,” his mother said, “where did you pick up that word? I sure don’t sit around in taverns, least of all over at Erwin Zibulla’s. What kind of fantasy are you spinning now? It’s high time there was school again.”

Phantom went down to the cellar, looking for the straw hat that his father always used to wear in the garden. He found it under a bunch of other stuff. The brim was all frayed. He climbed back upstairs and went into his bedroom, and sat in front of his mirror. He put the hat on his head. He looked at himself in the mirror.

He saw there a tattered yellow hat, plus the face of his mother, who had followed him quietly into his room. “Good day, chief,” she said, “are you headed for the bar now?”

Phantom threw the hat into the corner and left.