Herma Schulte, who was Alex’s wife, was standing at the stove, turning potatoes and onions in the pan. She added a little coffee grounds, the way people did now that there wasn’t any more fat to be had, so that the potatoes would turn a little bit brown. It smelled exactly like it smelled in every kitchen that Phantom knew.
“So you’re the little Spormann. Oh my, you were so little the last time we saw you. You were always playing in the coal bin, yelling ‘Phantom Phantom Phantom!’” she said etc etc, the way aunties always talk when they see a child for the first time in years.
She continued, “Alex will be back in an hour. They had to push all night long and now they’re pouring out the whole day as well. How are things at your house? Has your Papa written?”
Phantom explained that they got a letter every other month, in which he wrote that things were going well for him, they needn’t worry themselves about him at all etc etc. The sentences were always the same, and they could infer from them that nothing particularly bad had happened.
“Yes, yes,” Herma Schulte said. “I’ve seen letters like that.”
Alex Schulte had also been away twice. They sat in the window. Slowly it grew dark. Fog rolled in from the Red Mountains. It crept over the fields of stubble and settled over the gardens behind the houses, with their rabbit hutches and chicken coops, pigeon cages and woodboxes.
“There will be frost soon, much too soon,” Herma Schulte said. “I can feel it in my legs.”
And she explained about her legs, how they could always detect changes in the weather, and that the kale was already so far along, and the Americans not nearly far enough along.
And then she told the story about the flag of the Fighting Red Front. “I sewed it in ’25,” she said. “Fringe all around it, and I embroidered on it: For Freedom and Justice, with a fist in the middle, and underneath, Red Front.
The last time we marched with it was Mayday ’29. A couple of days later the ban was issued.
The following morning the goons showed up here, very early. They wanted the documents, and of course the flag.
They pounded on the door. We were lying in bed, Alex on the outside. He got up. The flag was hanging next to the wardrobe. I take the flag down, throw the poles out the window, behind the chicken coop. I wrap myself up, naked as I was, in the fabric, all the words wrapped to the inside, naturally. I look at myself in the mirror. I look something like one of those dames in the bathroom that you see in the movies. Then they just walk in. I scream, ‘Get out of here!’ They’re ogling me. One breast isn’t completely inside the cloth. They look around briefly, under the bed. They don’t notice that I’m wearing the thing. And then they leave again.”
Herma Schulte added a few more grounds to the fried potatoes, and she pushed them around in the pan. She took the pan off the fire and said, “The flag, my boy, is that kind of a thing. Of course it isn’t like what the others bellow about in their song, that the flag is greater than death. That’s idiocy. But the flag, for us, well, at any rate we sure weren’t going to let them have it, and burning it was also out of the question.
“So I put it as a tablecloth on the round table in the living room, embroidered side down, a crocheted lace cloth over the top. Then whenever we sat around the table with the flag in front of us, it lent us courage.
“But then came ’33, when our men were shipped to Boergermoor, and there was a second wave of searches. This time they sifted through every piece of paper. Of course we didn’t have anything left in the house, except the flag draped over the table. For two hours they turned everything in the living room upside down. Little Saremba, a local criminal, who was there with the others in ’29 already, was there again that day. He suddenly reached under the flag with both hands, feeling the tabletop underneath for pamphlets. I ran to the table, grabbed the thing right in the middle with my fist and ripped it off the table, yelling at them, ‘Don’t you dare scratch my table, damn you!’ Then I stood there, the rest of the time, holding the flag and the lace cover.
“Yes, and then I made a coverlet out of it, a brown one. And our Grandma, who was still alive then, confined to her wheelchair – she also had it in her legs – she always wore the coverlet draped across her knees. Alex came back in ’34, and then in the evenings when we would be sitting in the kitchen with friends and comrades, talking about this and that, why, the flag was still with us, draped over Grandma’s knees.
“In ’36 there was the second arrest and the third search, since we had gone around collecting for the Red Cross. This time the goons were very sharp. They took all the names on the contribution list. They were here the whole day long. They dug up the garden, wardrobes, chests, the sofa, everything taken apart. Little Saremba was furious. ‘I’ll find something yet!’ he kept crying. There was a woman with them too. She searched me, our Grandma too, and fumbled with the coverlet with the flag inside, to see if anything rustled like paper.
“They kept Alex in a work camp, just like your Papa, until ’39. And then Grandma died. What to do with the flag?
“Well, that was the time when they started with the blackouts. So I took Grandma’s old black dress apart and sewed it over the front of the flag, draped it from a pole, and hung it in front of the window.
“Two years ago little Saremba came back here with another troop, looking for some of our people. They looked everywhere as usual, under the bed, in the wardrobe. Little Saremba was standing there in front of the window. He pulled on the cord, and the flag fell down.
“‘Blackout curtains have to be black,’ he said. ‘This here is red.’
“‘But just on the inside,’ I said. ‘It’s black on the outside.’ He turned it over and looked at the other side. It was black.
“‘Red,’ he kept mumbling over and over, ‘you just can’t ever leave it alone.’
“So then I took the flag back down. I made pillows out of it, and stuffed them with feathers, covers over the top. And I still take them with me every night when we have to take shelter in the bunker. I sit on them. Nobody will ever take them away. And when the Ammies arrive, soon, then I’ll take them apart again and I’ll hang the flag back up so that everyone can see it, and we’ll even drag little Saremba over here to look, if he’s still with us then. I’ll say, ‘Take a look at the flag, will you? A couple of times you have even had your dirty fingers on it. Now see it hang there before your eyes. We won.’”
It had grown dark. They pulled the blackout curtains in front of the window, and turned on the light.
Then the door swung open. Alex Schulte came into the kitchen along with a prisoner of war, who was carrying a tool kit. He sat down. Then they all sat down at the table, and ate fried potatoes, and drank some kind of hot brew. Alex pointed at Phantom with his fork. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Spormann, the littlest one,” Herma Schulte answered.
They ate. Nobody said a word. Then Herma Schulte stood up. “I have some sewing to do,” she said. She went into the living room.
Phantom looked at the other man, a tall blond fellow. “That’s Pierre,” Alex Schulte said. “A Frenchman, and a good friend.”
“I have come with word for Alex,” Phantom said. “Pottmann sent me.”
“You can talk,” Alex said. “Pierre is one of us.”
Phantom said, “You’re supposed to come over to Berta Niehus’. They want to talk to you.”
Later the three of them went down the street towards the camp, where Alex would have to leave Pierre with the rest of the Frenchmen. At the gate to the camp Pierre said, “Salut.” Then he disappeared.
Alex Schulte went a ways father with Phantom. “I’ll be at the Niehus’ on Tuesday evening at six,” he said. “Goodbye.”
“That’s the way it should be,” thought Phantom as he headed over the mountain, alone, into the night. “Everyone who has to take part should only know what he has to know. Then, if the goons ever catch you, you won’t say anything more, because you won’t know anything more.”
The goons showed up two days later.
Phantom was sitting on Merrick’s wall with the others. The sedan belonging to the interrogation unit pulled up. “Who here goes by the name Spormann, Ernst?” the little man asked. It was the same man who was there when they arrested Heini Spormann. “It will be necessary to ask you a few questions.”
“So just go on and ask,” Phantom said to the man.
“That will happen soon enough,” the little one said, “when you come with us.”
“I have to ask my mother first,” Phantom said.
But then the two heavier goons got out and one of them said, “Let’s make it now.”
Phantom had to get in the back of the sedan. They went to the interrogation quarters, in a building that was connected to City Hall.
“You were in the Red Mountains with the one you call Abbatz. Why?”
That was how the little man began. They were in a room where Phantom had to stand facing a desk.
Phantom said, “I wanted to see Abbatz’s place once. I had heard a lot about it. After that I went to see my aunt, Herma Schulte.”
“You had wine along with you. Where did you get that?”
“Made it from rosehips, from last year,” Phantom said.
“But everyone was supposed to surrender all the rosehips.”
“Yeah, but you can keep a little back for yourself, can’t you?”
“You are quite a sly one,” the little man said.
He went up to the desk and grabbed Phantom by the jacket. He turned him around, and stepped on his feet. The little man was the same size as Phantom. He smelled of tobacco and urine. “Where are the carbines?” he asked sharply.
Phantom screamed, “My feet, ow ow ow, my feet!” The little man was somewhat taken by surprise. He stepped back a little ways.
Phantom raised one of his feet, then he fell down and screamed some more. Someone opened the door. The little man bellowed, “Get out!”
Then he sat down behind the desk. “So,” he said, “where are the carbines?”
Phantom said, “I have to sit down.” And he cried some more.
“Fetch yourself the chair out of the corner.” Phantom sat down in front of the desk.
“So let’s get on with it, the carbines,” the little man said.
Phantom said, “I only saw one of them.”
“Well now, you see,” the little man said, “where there is one, there are more. And where did you see it?”
“On Abbatz,” Phantom said. “He had it slung over his shoulder the whole time.”
The little man lit a cigarette. “Ones like you,” he said, “we make them sing eventually. So then you visited Schulte. Why was that?”
“Wanted to bring Schulte some of the rosehip wine, only Abbatz drank it all,” Phantom said.
“We’re not getting anywhere,” the little man said. He stood up.
Phantom started yelling, “Ow ow ow!” As he did so there came from the hallway a lot of screaming and shouting, deep voices interspersed, then louder cries still. Phantom recognized the voices of his mother and Erna Trietsch, and a few others as well. He grinned.
The door flew open. A man said, “There are a dozen women standing out here, and they want the boy back.” The man was Bernard Schlueter.
“I said to get out!” the little man shouted again.
Outside they could hear the howling starting up anew, so loud that you could hardly hear a word anymore. The little man grew uneasy. He started drumming his fingers on the desktop. They started stamping their feet in the hallway, and also in the room just above their heads. Some man shouted out something.
Phantom began crying again, loud. “Would you just be quiet!” the little man hissed. “You sonofamother!”
And then the telephone rang. The little man answered it. He said, “Yes, sir,” a couple of times.
He hung up the receiver and shouted at Phantom, “Get out of here!”
Phantom backed up slowly, his back to the door. He looked at the little man once more, who by now was standing at the window. Then he dashed out.
Out in the hallway, four men in uniform were restraining Anna Spormann and ten or more women from the canister division, all wearing their work smocks.
“Picking up the children while we’re out working night and day, there will be repercussions for this!” etc etc, they shouted, and they threw curses at the men.
“Oh there he is!” Anna Spormann cried. She pushed past the goons and swept Phantom up into her arms.
The other women surrounded them, and everybody pushed, pulled and carried Phantom down the stairs and outside. They wouldn’t let him out of their midst. They carried him all the way to the Quarter, hurling insults back over their shoulder the whole way.
“You did a good job,” the women told Phantom. “Schlueter informed us of what was going on, and then we heard your cries from outside, and we could tell exactly what hallway where the interrogation was happening.”
“My boy, my boy,” Anna Spormann said. “We’ve been lucky once again.”
It would be better if Phantom were to disappear for awhile, they decided.
He spent the next night and the day after that in the tunnel under the railroad tracks.
That night Karlheinz took him to the crossing behind Dohmann’s rock cliff. He said, “Don’t ask any questions about where you’re going. It’ll be one or two weeks, or until it’s quiet here again. Then we’ll send for you. It’s somewhere in the country. More than that I don’t know either.”
It was a stormy night. Phantom was wearing a long coarse cloak, motorcycle helmet, glasses, and gloves. They sat on a bench and had a smoke, the cigarettes hidden cupped inside their hands. “When the war is over,” Phantom said, “and if he’s still alive, then I’m going to get that little fellow.”
Karlheinz laughed. But then he said, “There will be courts with real justice then, and that’s where we’ll take him. We aren’t like they are.”
“Yeah, right,” Phantom said. “You sound just like Papa.” They laughed.
Then they heard the sound of a motorcycle climbing up the mountain, a BMW 250. The rider was also wearing glasses, a hood, and leathers. He stopped.
Phantom snapped the footpedals down into place, climbed up behind him, and put his arms around the driver’s stomach. Karlheinz clapped him on the shoulder. Then they drove off, through the rain, the night, and the storm, down the side roads and paths.
Everything was dark except for the small headlight beam ahead of them. The man drove hard and fast. They took the curves wide and leaning. A couple of times they almost slid on the slippery surfaces. Up and over the mountains, through narrow passes. In four hours’ time they didn’t stop once.
Finally he halted in front of the gate to a house. “You’ll be picked up here,” he shouted, not even turning the motor off. Phantom climbed down.
Phantom neither saw nor heard from the man ever again. He waited under a tree for about half an hour. He almost fell asleep despite the rain.
Then someone grabbed him and a man’s voice said, “Come with me.”
They took a path between some hedges, which led up a steep hill. They came down on the other side and arrived at a tiny house, built right into the mountain.
Phantom spent two long weeks in the tiny granite house, the walls whitewashed on the inside, built a ways from the little neighboring village.
It had a kitchen, two rooms, a stall for goats, and a tiny loft under the roof, which was where Phantom stayed.
From the little window he could see all over the mountain: trees and more trees. The leaves were already turning yellow and red, and falling to the ground. The sun only came out every now and then. Phantom played his harmonica. He visited a lot with Aunt Maria, whom he had never seen before. They sat in the kitchen, he helped her out with this and that. There was goat cheese and goat’s milk along with the fried potatoes. And if anybody came up the path, then Phantom would have to disappear into the little loft.
Uncle Bernhard came home in the evenings. He was also somebody Phantom had never met before. He worked in the blacksmith shop in the valley. He hardly spoke a word. And when he did have something to say, he either shouted or else whispered so quietly that Phantom could hardly understand him.
“That’s because of all the hammering,” Aunt Maria said.
And Phantom could hear the blows of the hammer coming up from the valley all day long. It sounded especially loud at night.
One night another man arrived, who had to share the loft with Phantom for a few days. An American.
Phantom taught him how to play 66. They could only communicate through gestures and drawings. One night the American began to sing, and then he started crying. When he left the house the next day, Phantom wasn’t sorry to see him go.
Finally, after 15 days and nights, Uncle Bernhard climbed up the mountain with him. It was night. They came down on the other side, and waited near the village. A supply wagon arrived and carried Phantom back home.