<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 13

Sugar was lying under the plum tree. Phantom was lying next to her. Little Sister was crawling around in the grass, and crawling on top of them, making talking noises and laughing.

“When it’s over, soon,” Phantom said, “then school will start again. One year to go, then apprenticeship. Then the long stretch. Have you ever really thought about it?”

They both fell silent. They were looking up into the plum tree and into the sky, tracing the white puffy trails left behind by the tiny points of silver: a flight of bombers headed east. The buzzing they made was no louder than the hum of the bees in the plum tree.

Phantom had always wanted to be a locksmith. Nothing else had ever appealed to him.

But since yesterday, or maybe earlier, he wasn’t so sure anymore. He imagined himself carrying his little kit of tools from house to factory, from factory to house, standing on the corner near Siepmann’s, talking about this and that. Hanging out at Erwin Zibulla’s, drinking and playing skat. To the game on Sundays. First as a player, then an older player, finally just to watch. Marriage, kids, saving up for the union or the Party, then finally just like Grandpa Thiel, sitting in the window, looking out as the others head off to work, waiting till you’re dead.

He said all this to Sugar. She didn’t reply for a long time. But then she asked, “So what do you have against soccer anyway, or skat and schnaps, or marriage and kids?”

Little Sister crawled up onto Phantom’s chest. She was drooling and gurgling. “After the war is over everything will be completely different,” Sugar said. “The brownshirts will be gone, and our people will have some say then. Maybe we’ll even go to high school. Then even the factory will belong to us, and things will look different.”

“Don’t you believe it,” Phantom said. He told her what Karl from Dortmund had told him that night behind the factory quarry: “The fight will go on, and you will have it hard.”

“Well do you want to get married or not?” Sugar wanted to know.

But just then Sparks came up and sat down next to them, so Phantom didn’t have to answer.

Sparks was reading Karl May. He told them about the Knee Shot. “Pay attention,” he said, “we could use this technique. We’re sitting around the fire at night, making plans, like how to blow up the next bridge. The horses are muzzled. From close by another hack starts neighing, which means we’re being watched. You just keep talking as though nothing happened. But you watch closely. You pull your hat down over your eyes, so the spy can’t see what you’re up to.” Sparks pulled an imaginary hat down over his eyes. He leaned back casually. “Their eyes always shine in the dark,” he said, “even with spies. So you keep an eye on his eyes, play around with the gun a little.” Sparks took a branch, and raised his right knee high. “Then you steady the gun on your knee, aim between the eyes, and – shoot.”

And at that instant they heard a shriek, as though someone had just caught a shot between the eyes.

The cry came from the Siepmanns’ attic room. In between, there was clapping, and then a loud voice shouting something in French.

“Jean is losing it,” Sparks said. “He’s been this way for a couple of days. ‘No screw screw!’ he shouted yesterday, and he threw Christa down the stairs. Did you know he was part of the Resistance in Paris? He knows a whole lot about underground fighting. We could use somebody like that.”

The shrieking started up again, but just then Phantom’s mother called for him and he had to go home.

That afternoon Phantom was over at the Ronsdorfs’. Once again they were examining the photograph of Animal’s Uncle Alphonse, the laughing face, the moustache, the sombrero, the cartridge belts, the cactuses.

Grandpa Thiel was there too, playing 66 with Animal’s grandpa. “Just take a look at him,” he said. “That was some fellow. Like the time he took over the Governor’s palace, him with just a couple of other men. They’re always asleep in the afternoon down in Mexico, even the goons, because it’s so hot. Huge hats pulled down over their faces, heads on their knees, leaning against the wall. So my Alphonse sneaks up to the palace, leading the horses by the reins, their hooves wrapped up in strips of cloth. His troops follow close behind. Up to the wall, where they’re all lined up in a row, the goons, like chickens. “Then Alphonse leaps on his horse. The others do the same. He’s brandishing a sabre. They gallop down the length of the wall. He keeps his sabre at just-under-the-hat height all the way down. They gallop up the stairs, right into the bedroom. The Governor is in bed, screwing two young girls at the same time, such a thick old....”

“Enough of that,” Animal’s mother interrupted, “you old bock! One foot in the grave, and still that’s all you can think about,” etc etc.

“Come on,” Animal said to Phantom. All the way down the street they could still hear Grandpa Thiel carrying on.

ThinMan was sitting on the front steps at the Niehus’ railway car, first class. He was wearing something like a fur hat. He was reading a book.

“It’s the newest fashion,” Berta Niehus began, as soon as they arrived. “Since yesterday the young Niehus has sat there, going back and forth between the Illustrated History of the Revolution and Gogol’s Taras Bulba, wearing this foolish head gear, and asking me things about the stormy days on the Rhine and the Ruhr. The talk is all of weapons and horses, and Partisan struggle. What is all this supposed to mean?”

“Nothing in particular,” Phantom said. “We just had a discussion about Partisans.”

“The history of the revolution,” Animal said. “A little schooling, that’s what we’re missing anyway, you’re always telling us.”

Berta Niehus didn’t like Animal. She looked at him angrily. “Woe to us,” she said, “if people like yourself should ever come to positions of power. You’re one of those like that man...”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but Phantom could imagine what she was thinking. She respected Stalin, but she sure didn’t love him.

They went to look for horses. They set out over the mountain.

In Rehschopp’s meadow there were three fat nags, grazing. ThinMan, who used to sit on Elsa’s back, Elsa the slaughtered Belgian draft horse, let Phantom and Animal help him onto the back of one of them.

He hit the animal with a stick until it broke into a trot. It went a couple of steps, then stopped and began grazing again. It wasn’t any different with the other two.

Later, in the little valley near the Bransels’, they saw a trim chestnut horse, lifting his feet high as he moved. A stallion. “Now there’s a real horse,” ThinMan said. “Let’s take him.”

They surrounded him. ThinMan reached out his hand. He said, “Heeere, heeere, heeere.” He moved toward the horse. Closer. The stallion raised his head. ThinMan was standing next to him. He patted him on the neck. Then he threw both arms around the horse’s neck, and tried to climb on his back. But the horse tossed his head to the side, and reared up.

Suddenly ThinMan was lying stretched out in the grass. The stallion walked away a couple of steps, let forth a couple of quarts of piss onto the ground beneath, and then didn’t pay any more attention to them.

Animal tried it next. But he only got within three steps of the animal. This time the stallion kicked out with his hind feet, and nearly hit Animal in the head.

“Horses aren’t that important anyway,” Animal said.

In the underground tunnel under the tracks they checked on their weapons supply. Four bazookas, 3M, with charges. Two carbine 98’s plus 300 shots of ammunition. An MG 42 plus four boxes of shot. Eight hand grenades, one landmine, fifty smoke bombs, two tins of gunpowder, and a couple of bundles of fuses. Also there was Phantom’s 765 Walther, plus one bayonet.

“This will do for now,” ThinMan felt. “The other stuff we’ll have to get somehow.”

But since none of them had ever shot a bazooka, they laid it on their wagon, threw blankets over it, and headed for Stonewall Lake. They fetched Berti out of the cave. “Show us how the thing works, will you?” Phantom requested.

“First you unscrew the top,” Berti said. “Now, take off the barrel. Place the charge in here. Stuff it down in, no, like this. The trigger has to connect with the explosives.”

Phantom did everything just as Berti said. With every motion that Phantom made, Berti stepped one step farther back. “Now screw the barrel back on. Fasten the flange tight.” Berti was now standing ten yards away from Phantom.

“You’re scared shitless,” Animal said. “Some Partisan leader.” He dragged Berti back closer.

“Leave him alone,” Phantom said. “I can do it by myself.”

He set the sight in position, shoved the lock forward, and cocked it. “Get way behind me,” he said.

Berti was already running. The other two positioned themselves a couple of yards away from Phantom. He laid the barrel on his right shoulder, aimed through the sight at a rock outcropping in the stone ledge, and pressed the red button.

Boom! A stream of fire shot out of the barrel. Almost instantaneously the shot fell hissing into the water somewhere beyond them.

“Is that all?” Animal asked.

But Berti was nowhere to be seen. He was hiding in the bushes somewhere close by. He came out and said, “Yeah, that’s how it’s done.”

They threw the spent shell into the water, and took Berti back into the cave.

“He’s not well yet,” ThinMan said.

Animal said, “He’s a coward. Some Partisan leader.”

Phantom didn’t say anything. He was furious.

The whole thing was pure fantasy. He had known that from the beginning, and he just couldn’t explain why he had let all this happen. All that garbage from the teacher’s son. He wanted to do something great, didn’t want to waste his life away going between the bar, the factory, and the train tracks. It had gotten to him, made him unsure of himself. And again he thought to himself that they knew too little about what was going on.

The moon was bright again that night. After Karlheinz fell asleep, Phantom got dressed again. He sneaked out and went to the cave. He himself didn’t know why.

Chahlie and Anna Kusnevski were nowhere to be found in Bones Grotto. He crept farther. He came to Devil’s Lake, a little pond into which water dripped from the ceiling and walls of the cave. He stopped. Between the plops of dripping water, he heard the tones of music, faint and light. By the light of his torch Phantom crawled as fast as he could, until he came to Clemens’ Grotto.

And there he stopped again. He saw Chahlie and Anna dancing around a little fire. Clemens, Sparks and Berti were sitting in a circle around the fire. And someone was standing, playing the violin: Jean, the Frenchman. Sparks had brought him, as the newest member of the Partisan troops. Berti said, “The Frenchman is our man.”

Phantom was too angry to speak. He felt around in his jacket for the 765 Walther. Then he wanted to scream. But he didn’t say anything.

He went over and sat down next to the fire. He drank a jar of red wine, and lay down. He watched the flickering shadows on the wall and on the ceiling, and didn’t think about anything anymore. He listened to the violin. He drank another jar of wine. He grew weak, he saw fog, the dancing Anna, and Sparks, who was laughing.

He threw up, fell asleep, woke up again. He saw all the others stretched out, asleep.

All but Berti. Berti was leaning next to his hut, and talking, and it echoed and echoed. “Watchman’s fire, we’re sitting around waiting, waiting, until someone sings. But you’re so tired. The red light is heavy. The faces are dark. Nonetheless the eyes of the little Frenchman are shining with their own peculiar light.”

The little Frenchman was lying close to the fire, snoring, his arm around the violin. The bow was lying across his stomach.

Then there was the loud boom of an .08. It reverberated and echoed through the grotto and the whole cave.

Everyone was instantly awake. There was a lamp burning in the back part of the grotto. Then they heard a voice. It said, “Spormann, stand up. Turn the keg over. All the wine into the fire.”

The wine keg was next to the fire. They had broken a hole in the top of the keg, so that they could just dip the jars in. Phantom opened the tap. The wine flowed out. It hissed and smoked, and the cave reeked of wine. Then it was dark. Next they found themselves under the glare of two flashlights.

The voice said, “Frenchman, smash your violin.” And, since Jean hesitated, it said, “Would you do it now, yes?”

And so Jean smashed his violin to pieces. The voice said, “Nobody leave this grotto. None of you leave this cave anymore. There’s shooting going on. Spormann, Krach, and Bischoff, come here.”

Phantom pushed Sparks and Berti forward. Then the voices came from behind their backs. “Forward to the exit,” someone said. And Phantom now recognized the voice of Ewald Stumpe.

Someone else remained behind. “You have put yourself in great danger, yourself and the others, and especially the Organization, the product of many years’ labor by your father and your people. How great a danger, I have no need to explain. You did not report to us about the Polish woman. Then, even worse, you said nothing about this crazy Hitler Youth leader. You went so far as to let that idiot turn your heads around with his wild ideas. And now you have taken the Frenchman. And all this done on your own steam, without consulting anybody.” Stash said all this and much more to Phantom.

“From now on you can just do the whole fucking thing without me,” Phantom said. He caught a blow from Ewald Stumpe for that one.

“Obviously there are a few things that are not clear to you. If they find the Frenchman and the others who are here in this cave, then they will also get some names. Phantom’s, for instance. They they’ll have the string in their hand, and all they will have to do is unroll it. We’ve told you before about little Eva Lewicke, in 1935, when she was thirteen years old. In other words, exactly your age. They managed to squeeze all sorts of names out of her. When it was over she was dead. And many of ours then disappeared into prisons and camps for many years. Your father for instance. A few of ours didn’t make it through. If the goons find anything, anything at all, you’ll have to disappear immediately.”

After a pause, Stash resumed, in a different tone. “Everyone makes mistakes. We too have been guilty of trespass here. We should have explained things a little more carefully than we did. If we make it through this okay, then we will still need you to take care of the people in the cave, keep watch etc etc. Children don’t look suspicious playing around in the forest and by the lake. That’s actually what we had in mind at the outset.”

“What have you done with Berti?” Phantom asked.

“He’s okay, he’s just in a place where he can’t run away anymore,” Stumpe said.

Later, when Phantom and Karlheinz were lying in bed, smoking, Karlheinz said, “Well, a fine troop of Partisans you’ve built for yourselves there! A British lord, a little Polish carbolic acid mouse, a knickknack carpenter, a violinist from Paris, you five, and, as leader, a crazy Hitler Youth director. The Fascists will be fleeing in terror!”

“Kiss my ass,” Phantom replied.

Every house was searched, but after a few days they gave up the search for Jean. The goons had found nothing.

One evening, it was already the beginning of October, they were sipping soup and Karlheinz said, “After supper you should head over to the Pottmanns’ to help the short one do some sawing.” Phantom’s mother and his brother were grinning.

“Yeah, sure,” Phantom’s mother said to Karlheinz, “you know you have something else in mind.”

The short Mr. Pottmann was sitting on a bench in front of his rabbit hutch. He offered Phantom his tin of tobacco. They both rolled cigarettes and had a smoke.

Pottmann lived in a house at the upper end of the street. It was fairly steep going there, with a view over the whole Quarter, down over the factory, out over the train tracks, the neighborhood gardens with their little sheds, the Dreizehnbogen bridge, Dohmann’s Hill. Over to the left were the two gas storage tanks, huge black spheres. Near them were bombed-out houses, jagged ruins, telephone poles with wires running this way and that. On the other side was the burned-out school, with houses behind it, some of them missing roofs. And far beyond all that was the bunker set in the hill, sinister and grey.

There was thick smoke hanging over the whole scene, from the smokestacks at the factory and the coal plant.

“Yes,” said Pottmann, “it’s not exactly life on the beautiful blue Donau.”

They laid a pine log on the sawhorse. The wood was still green. It smelled strongly of resin. They sawed it in two. “Pull, always just pull, don’t push,” Pottmann said. They pulled the sawblade back and forth, each of them steadying the wood with his left hand.

“And it won’t be nice here until we’re something more than just part of the inventory, namely, not until we own the houses, the school, the factory, and everything. And then we’ll have the say about what gets done here, and how it will look.”

Pottmann puffed a little between sentences, as they were sawing. “So you all say you don’t like it here. You want to leave. Get out of the whole pile of shit. That is precisely wrong. You should think for just a moment: why is it that in the first war already, and now again in this one, so many of our own young ones, workers’ children, joined in the fight so willingly and enthusiastically? Fatherland, glory, greatness. That’s what the others had in mind. It’s the same thing this time, maybe just a few extra words thrown in, master race etc etc.

“Now of course that garbage by itself wouldn’t be enough to lure the working people’s children into getting themselves shot for the sake of the warmongers, bankers and factory owners. No,” the short Mr. Pottmann continued, “they have very cleverly thought it all out. “When you have to live here, and in this fashion, nothing but a work animal your whole life long, then of course there’s nothing more in the world that you want, at least if you’re between the ages of ten and twenty, than to go out into the wide world and have some adventures. Every day something new. That’s what you have in mind. And there’s an opportunity for that, if you serve as a soldier in the war.

“But our strength is in discipline. Stay here, fight here, every day. And the others, of course, they too know what is the strength of the working class. Twice now they have succeeded in butchering us with their dangerous foolish rhetoric. So against that we have to be firm. We have to remember, always, what it is that they want, and what it is that we want.

“We want this factory, this school, these houses. And what they want is to take this land, upon which their factories and schools and houses stand, and enlarge its borders, so that there will be more factories, more schools, more houses, all of which will belong to them.

“No, we won’t leave here. Not of our own free will. We are the ones who have built what you see here. And it ought to belong to us, for once. That’s what this is all about.” Pottmann was now out of breath. He said nothing as they sawed the second log. “So,” he said then, “how about if we take a break?”

They sat down and had a smoke. Pottmann began again.

“At this moment, we’re standing right before the final overthrow of the Fascists. That will deal a severe blow to the bourgeoisie here and all over the world. And they have not been able to defeat the Soviet Union. So precisely now, at the end, is when discipline is the most important. If they could, they would murder us all before it ends.”

They sawed the third piece in two. “Just take a look at Alphonse Ronsdorf. He was one of those types. Never had any real sense to him, nothing on his brain but women and booze. Laughed when the others distributed leaflets, had meetings, called strikes. ‘Smalltime stuff,’ that’s what he always said. I can still see him standing there, his little cap hanging from his neck, cigar hanging from his mouth, white shirt, standing on the corner by Siepmanns’. Swashbuckling, he imagined himself.

“Shortly before the first war he went to the coast to work the ships as a coalfirer. But when he got off in Mexico, he stayed there. They found him somewhere in 1920. A friend of his told us what happened, in fact he made a special trip over to tell us. They found him with his throat slit, missing his balls and cock.

“So now, take a look at your brother, or Animal’s father, or Heini Spormann, your own father. Which picture do you like better?”

During the fourth log Pottmann spoke up again. “So you learn to be a locksmith. Stay here like your Papa. You keep on doing what you have been doing, is that clear?”

Later, as Phantom was heading for home, Mr. Pottmann called out after him, “So you go tell the other Partisans what I said. That’s an order.”

In Bohr’s shed Phantom told the others all the things Pottmann had said. “He’s right, too,” he added after awhile.

Sparks just kept carving on the stick he was working on. ThinMan, who always liked to join in philosophical discussions, said a few appropriate words. Animal snored. Finally Sugar said, “My, but what a perceptive lad we have here with us.”

And with that, the matter of the Partisan army was settled.