<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 15
Into the Red Mountains

“We are now calling upon every single man between the ages of 16 and 60 who is capable of bearing arms to join the people’s army to protect all provinces of our great German Reich. You will be protecting our home soil with all possible weapons and other means, as many as become available.”

A Nazi in a special uniform was bellowing this and similar nonsense, as he read from the paper in front of him. Before him stood 200 men in the factory yard, assembled in rank and file. Close behind the mission leader there were other Nazis, ten SS men, the men from the factory’s security guard, and their leader, Hugo Beck.

The 200 workers, who were young boys, invalids and old men, were wearing white armbands and steel helmets. Others began unloading and distributing weapons from a supply truck: a couple of bazookas, and a quantity of carbine rifles.

The weapons were shouldered. Everyone marched left-around-the-building-forward-march, led by the Nazis, the SS men and the factory’s security guard. Hugo Beck hobbled along in their midst.

They marched through the gate, then through the Quarter, singing 'Oh you beautiful country marmelade cup.' Stumpe, Pottmann, Makevka and Karlheinz were in one group. They came to the market area, where they met other troops. They had to listen to some more bellowing by the troop leader. Finally they marched two times through the town.

It was evening before they all returned, no longer in formation. When the weapons had to be handed back, it was discovered that five carbines were missing.

House searches and a search of the factory, all under the guidance of Hugo Beck, produced nothing, of course.

SS men with MP’s ran through the factory, shouting. Pottmann was interrogated for two days.. He said nothing. After a week there was peace and quiet again.

Three of the five weapons, plus 100 shots of the ammunition, stored in the underground tunnel under the tracks, were intended for Alex Schulte, who led the Organization at the lumber mill seven miles away. Phantom was to go visit Alex Schulte, and fetch him. He was to say that Alex needed to come over to visit.

The shortest way to the lumberyard led straight over the Red Mountains, a bunch of high and wide slagheaps surrounding a mineworks that had been abandoned since forever. It was an area that nobody went through willingly, because Abbatz the stutterer ruled the territory there.

Abbatz, who was somewhere in his 20’s, was uncontrollable. He was seized by fits every now and then, during which he would destroy everything around him. At age 14 he had strangled a man. He had to spend a few years in the hole for that. Then they let him go. Now he did as he pleased.

A lot of people thought that was curious, because that wasn’t the way the Fascists normally handled people who were sick like that. But on second thought, maybe it wasn’t so dumb of them. The Red Mountains, full of shafts, holes, and caverns, would be the best possible hiding place for fugitives. And there were forced laborers and prisoners of war crawling all over this area. Abbatz let nobody get out of his turf alive, except of course his mother, his sisters, and animals. He smote lone wanderers swiftly and singlehandedly wounded or dead, like the Polish escapee Polanski that time. Or else he dragged them, if there was a price on their head, to the goons.

“We should figure out how to dispose of him,” a lot of people had been heard to say. “Even if he is sick.”

But Heini Spormann had always been against that, since Abbatz would just be replaced immediately. And it was not for them to take revenge, particularly not on crazy people.

Phantom went through the Red Mountains. It was his mission to determine whether this way, the shortest way to the mill, could be used by their people during the next few weeks and months. Also he needed to find out whether the question of using the Red Mountains as a hiding place could be reconsidered.

Perhaps it was possible these days. There was reason to think so. Half a year ago the corrections institute in Applerbeck had sent Abbatz an urn with an accompanying letter. In the letter it stated that the urn contained the ashes of Tita.

Tita had been one of Abbatz’s 14 sisters, ten years old. She often ran away, into the town. She could hardly talk. She only laughed at everybody, her hand outstretched, lisping through her harelip, “A penny, Uncle, a penny, Auntie, give me a penny.”

One of the higher-up Fascists had noticed her during an official visit to the town. Tita was picked up and sent to Applerbeck. Four weeks later Abbatz received her remains in the mail.

Abbatz’s sisters were very important to him, and he had been particularly fond of Tita. Perhaps the murder had changed his mind. At any rate Phantom was to go find out, one way or another.

A dangerous assignment, but Phantom knew Abbatz. He had sold him some scrap metal once, although it was on Phantom’s turf, by the tracks. They had talked a little bit about metals. “Copper,” Abbatz said, “that’s the most beautiful of all. Warm, shiny, and you can work with it like hhuu...” Phantom didn’t understand anything more, because Abbatz was overcome by one of his stuttering bouts. It lasted at least a minute. He was red in the face, his head twisted to one side, but in spite of this he was watching Phantom very carefully, to see if he laughed. As Abbatz’s bout came to an end, Phantom said, “Exactly. Copper is very pretty and it even turns green later.” At that, Abbatz laughed.

Phantom looked around as soon as he got to the top of the first hill. The heaps of red earth were partly overgrown with thick, medium-height brush. There were little valleys, gorges, and cliffs, rusting iron pieces, wheels, poles, no longer usable, half buried in the earth. There were paths everywhere, leading who knows where. And somewhere there was a house or hut belonging to Abbatz, undoubtedly in a depression where it couldn’t be seen.

Phantom followed the wide path upwards, through the bushes, over barren rubbish heaps. He sat down on a bare mound maybe 30 feet high. He rolled himself a cigarette. As he was licking it, he raised his head to look around.

He saw Abbatz directly across from and above him, on a narrow ridge. Phantom kept licking, slowly. He closed his pouch with his teeth and fingers. The pouch went into his shirt, and the matches came out. He lit the cigarette. He put the matches into his pants pocket, folded his hands behind his head, and leaned back. He inhaled deeply. He let the smoke slowly out of his nose and mouth. And then he looked squarely at Abbatz.

“Not green yet, your copper, how come?” called Abbatz. And he laughed.

He was teasing Phantom about his hair, which had a reddish tint to it, although certainly not as red as the earth around him, to say nothing of the flaming red Abbatz wore on his own head. Phantom just kept smoking.

“You don’t get through here,” Abbatz called, “so get out.”

Phantom pulled a bottle of wine out of the pack next to him. He pulled the cork out with his teeth. He took a drink and called out, “I have wine here, for you and your Mama too.”

“You should come over here,” Abbatz called.

Phantom stood up. He took the path again, which now led downwards. Abbatz jumped from his ridge, and slid down the overhang into the little valley beneath it. They arrived there almost simultaneously.

Abbatz took the pack from Phantom. “You go in front of me,” he said. “And stay on the path.”

Phantom marched, with Abbatz close behind him. Abbatz began again, “So you want to give me and Mama wine. But you got nothing for the girls?”

“Nobody could carry that much, not for thirteen,” Phantom said. And Abbatz laughed.

“So, what do you want? Nobody gives nothing, and I mean nothing, away for nothing.”

Phantom explained, “I have to get over to the lumber mill, and the shortest way is through the Red Mountains. I just wanted to come visit you on the way.”

Abbatz stood still. He grabbed Phantom by the arm, and took a deep breath. “Viiisss....” he began, and then he succumbed to a stuttering attack. His face was right up next to Phantom’s face. It turned pink, then red, then blue. Phantom was glad that nobody else had come along, particularly not Sugar, since laughing right now would be fatal. Abbatz had his carbine 98 slung over his shoulder. His head was unswerving this time. Finally with his last bit of breath he finished his “uuunhh” in Phantom’s face. He regained his color.

Phantom said, “Yeah, that’s right, I wanted to visit you.”

Abbatz laughed. “Keep going,” he said.

Where Abbatz lived, with his mother, sisters, goats, pigs, geese etc etc, was a conglomeration of brick sheds built one on the other, with windwills and weathervanes, crosses and roosters, and general kitschy knickknacks scattered all over the tarpapered roofs.

They were all there, sitting in one room full of frayed sofas and chairs, pillows, and tables. Abbatz’s mother was in the middle, large and fat and red-haired just like all the rest of them.

Everybody shrieked and laughed and pointed at Phantom. They cried, “Little fox! Blueboy! Cabbage head!” etc etc, the nicknames people use to tease people who have red hair. “You greaseface,” one of them called, and headed straight at Phantom.

“Naw,” Abbatz shouted, “leave him alone.”

“What does he want?” his mother asked.

Abbatz said, “He came to visit, and he brought a present. He brought us some wine.”

It got very quiet. Abbatz put the pack on the table, pulled out a bottle, and said, “You take a drink.”

Phantom pulled out the cork, took a long swill, and set it back down on the table. He found himself under the watchful gaze of thirty green eyes. “He didn’t keel over,” someone said.

Abbatz’s mother stood up, and held the bottle high in front of the light. She got a glass, filled it full, drank it down, and laughed. And everybody laughed, shrill and loud. “You eat with us,” the mother said.

There was stewed rabbit, in a sauce with blood and turnips, and corn cakes, with chestnut butter. They drank the wine along with it. Phantom had brought four bottles along. They laughed and told stories, each one crazier than the one before. Under the table one sister had her hand shoved inside Phantom’s pants, and he had his hand on hers.

“Come with me,” Abbatz said afterwards. “I’ll show you our place here.” To the mother and sisters he said, “You stay here.”

They went through dark rooms full of cobwebs on the windows. There were plank beds here and there, and clothes lying on the floor and piled up on top of chests.They came through one shed full of rusty iron pieces. It was Abbatz’s workshop. There was a potter’s wheel, and copper plates, poles, and pieces. Next there was a stall full of pigs and goats. One room was full of birdcages, chirp and twitter.

Finally, in the last room, Phantom saw what he was later to have to relate to the others over and over again: Rat City.

It was a town six yards square, as high as your belly, inside an enormous flat wooden box. The floor was covered with moss and sand and grass, with little gravel streets and alleys running through it all. Lining the streets were houses and sheds, factories, a train station, City Hall, churches, a prison. All of it was made of wood.

And in all the buildings, on the streets, in the grass and on the sand, everywhere there were rats, sitting or scurrying. There were brown ones and black ones and grey ones, even a couple of white ones, beady eyes, big ears, tails docked.

“Watch this,” Abbatz said.

He whistled a precise tone. At once all the rats ran to the open square in the middle of town. It was hard to believe, and later the others always had their doubts about it as well, but they aligned themselves into four long rows. Abbatz whistled again, a high note, then two short ones. The rats turned left and walked one time around the square. Then they walked through the streets and alleys, always keeping to their four rows, and keeping time to Abbatz’s rythmic whistling. They came back to the square. When Abbatz whistled a long, drawn-out tone that went from high to low, they fell out, and scurried back into the town.

“It was a long time before they would obey,” Abbatz said. “House rats, all of them. Always having babies. But I only keep the best ones. What you see here is thorough breeding. But you have to have patience.” On the word “patience” Abbatz had a stuttering attack.

“So,” he began again when he was finished, “whoever doesn’t obey, or tries funny business, goes here!” Abbatz pointed to the execution chamber with a cane. There was a foot-high guillotine with a wooden floor and frame, and a sharp knife. “Electric,” Abbatz said. He laid a piece of wood in the chamber. He used his cane to press a little button on the back wall of it. The knife snapped down. The wood stick was sliced in two.

Phantom looked into Abbatz’s cat eyes and thought to himself, “I should have brought along my 765 Walther after all. Even if there was the danger that Abbatz might have taken it from me.”

“I have another tone,” Abbatz said. “When I whistle that one, they all start fighting each other. I never touch them. They bite right away.”

He tapped his cane against the church tower. He said, “Sishi, come here!” A white rat came running from somewhere towards the church, and climbed up onto the roof, then up the tower. “High,” Abbatz said, and he raised his cane high. And Sishi the white rat climbed to the top of the cross and stood up on its hind feet. Abbatz whistled an ominous tone, and the rat whistled the same tone right back.

“Next time I’ll show you some more, maybe a wedding,” Abbatz said. “Complete with outfits. It’s so funny, you’ll just about die laughing.”

And then Phantom and Abbatz went together through the Red Mountains in the direction of the lumber mill.

Phantom said, “So what happened to your Tita?”

“So what should have happened to her?” Abbatz asked. “She’s dead.”

“So fast?” Phantom asked.

“Yeah, so fast,” Abbatz answered.

They climbed a steep cliff. From the top of it they could see the mill, the two ovens, white smoke hanging over it all, and a broad field of stubble right in front of them. Just behind it was the street with the workers’ houses.

“Hard for any swine to believe, that your Tita is just so simply dead,” Phantom began again.

Abbatz said, “You can just hold your mouth. You oughta all have your heads smashed in. Get out of here. If you try to come through here again, I’ll kill you.”

Phantom slid down the slope.

He had to go across the open field. He felt like a rabbit during the hunt. When he looked back over his shoulder, he saw Abbatz’s shadow in front of the setting sun. He had his carbine hanging loosely from its strap around his shoulder, the barrel pointed forwards.

But Phantom didn’t run. He slowly made his way over the field of stubble, and got to the street. When he got to the first house he knew nothing would happen to him. He looked back once more over the Red Mountains. Abbatz had disappeared.