It was true. Berta Niehus had had it hard. And she still had it hard.
She had been living all alone with the children since ’43. ThinMan’s younger set of twin sisters, Hannelore and Doris, had just turned 4 then. ThinMan was 11. The older twins, Rosa and Klara, were 16 and serving compulsory duty. Fritz Niehus had been serving time in a penal batallion for the past year. Then a bomb hit the Niehus’ house, and ThinMan’s mother and his twin brother died in the wreckage.
Josef wanted to fetch his ailing dove, the Danziger Hi-Flyer, out of the rubble, and he wanted to fetch Hilda Niehus off the roof of the bunker.
Everyone in the whole Quarter helped. Berta Niehus in her wheelchair, guided by ThinMan, gave orders, planned and managed, comforted, railed at officialdom of all stripes, organized, and went in the evenings to fetch Rosa and Klara back from the Hill, where they had to diaper babies and clean house for people who had nothing to do.
She could do it. That much she knew, this daughter of a dockworker from Hamburg.
At 16 she had fled to England to avoid the police, who were looking for her in connection with certain acts of sabotage during certain indicents at the shipyard. However, she came back for the Ruhr mineworkers’ strike of ’05.
She married Anton Niehus, worked days, and at nights she wrote for the SPD – oh, SPD, but she was on Rosa’s and Karl’s side. And she wrote for the Mineworkers’ Voice. And then during the war she attempted to sabotage the mineworkers’ blithe cooperation, dammit, with leaflets she distributed to the soldiers among them.
For that she got a month’s imprisonment. Then she got a letter from Clara Zetkin.
Her husband was in France with ThinMan’s father, who was 10 then. Then with the kid to Hamburg. November 18 and not a minute’s sleep, with the Red Flag and Paul Froehlich. On February 19 back again at the Ruhr River, USPD, then at the Amalie Streifschuss mine for the battle against the Whites. Anton fled to the mountains to hide. During the Kapp putsch he arrived back in the area, this time to fight the weather, and hunger.
Berta said, “Day and night at the typewriter, and you’re sniffing like a bloodhound now, aren’t you?”
Tuberculosis and a whole year of hanging over the abyss, a wheezing member of the KPD. Anton Niehus died. She was alone with ThinMan’s father Fritz.
Fritz became a locksmith at the factory. Slowly she managed to pull things together, but the old fire wasn’t there anymore.
And in the years until ’33, there were street fights, writing, leaflets, Death to the Fascists. The young one was in the RFB; two years in a row he got a Z. And she wrote and wrote, everything there was to write, but Hitler, the swine, he came anyhow.
And so did the terror. She was arrested in ’34. Two years in the Women’s Prison in Werl.
When she came back out, she said to her son, and to Spormann, Stumpe, Ronsdorf, Krach and Trietsch, “I’ve done my time. You’re on the line now.” And sure enough, they were on the line now.
They organized an underground railroad for fugitives. Berta Niehus traveled around masquerading as a farm woman, waitress, nun, sweetheart, once as a professor, once as a minister, with Jewish women and Bible scholars, and sometimes just plain friends in tow, until that got too dangerous.
So she held a little school, classes weekly, for awhile. The Organization got established inside the factory. Heini Spormann often came over and spoke with her. There was sometimes a Clash of Opinion over the issue of Action and In What Form, what could be won where. And then the Pact of Nonviolence.
For nights without end they discussed and discussed. The Organization nearly collapsed from the weight of the discussions. They had already started doing acts of sabotage at the factory, but what now?
Berta Niehus, who had read so much, knew just as little as Heini Spormann. “We stop the sabotage, otherwise carry on.”
But many hurled epithets at Stalin and refused to go along with them.
Berta Niehus was furious and she fumed for months, although she joined Heini Spormann’s party anyway.
But in ’41, when the Soviet Union fell, she only said, “Our comrade Stalin is going to have to do a little explaining one of these days. But for us, now, we’re on.”
Yes, she had gotten a lot of things done, and this little problem with Lorenz Fuchs she would also be able to solve.
She knew that a keg of beer wasn’t going to take care of the whole problem. So she had a plan, one that she would have loved to talk through with Heini Spormann or Fritz Niehus just now. But instead she went to Olga Pottmann, a buddy through many battles.
“You can’t talk to Stumpe anymore, and there’s no one else either. Humanity fails them, Olga. They’re not like our husbands and our sons were, and the trust is missing too. They don’t know what it’s like, with their hearts of steel.”
Olga Pottmann put two fingers to her mouth, the way she always did before she started to speak. She said, “‘When you can see the whites of the enemy’s eyes, then your heart should be like steel.’ Those are your words. You wrote them in Sheath and Storm.”
Berta Niehus, who always liked to hear things like that, smiled. “I’m not exactly the enemy,” she said, “but I know what you mean.”
That evening Olga Pottmann said to her husband, “Berta has it hard, you know. Mr. Buckles really ought to be living with her.”
He said, “Well, now, what little scheme do you have in mind now?”
“You like beer, yes?” said the smaller Pottmann.
“No, no, absolutely out of the question.”
Olga threw a potato at him. “Where is your humanity?” she shrilled at him for a little while more. But by then she had already said enough.
Humanity was also the topic that day at the Ronsdorfs’ place.
Berta Niehus had made Herta a raincoat from an old sheet. She had done it on the sewing machine, the foot-powered model. Lorenz Fuchs provided the feet, and he told stories as well. Animal’s mother was there too, visiting at Fuchs’ little house.
At the Ronsdorfs’ a wine bottle was opened, and at noon at the table there was a tug and a welling-up in Herta’s eyes that Animal had never seen on his mother’s face before.
“Weak, that’s what you could say,” she said. And she spoke of the Sad Plight of Women Without Men, a topic that made Animal very uneasy. Unpleasant things would usually ensue, once they got started in on the topic of missing fathers. But this time she just stopped.
“Bring me your literature book,” she said. Animal went and looked for the book. He found it under the wardrobe.
She leafed through it. “Here,” she said, “read this.”
By this time Animal was truly horrified, but he read: 'The moon has risen, the tiny stars are glittering in a sky light and clear.'
Grandpa stopped eating and began to cry. Animal said, “Mama, why don’t you go back to bed for the day. You’ve come down with something. Call in sick. You can miss your shift today.”
Herta Ronsdorf just sat there, looking out the window, out over the train tracks, directionless.
Animal was prepared to go fetch old Dautzenberg, who knew a lot about healing and illnesses, and who had a lot of herbs and stuff in her house. But then his mother said, “Tomorrow we are going to start lessons. Look at you there strutting around like you think you’re a little man, and you’re already almost 14 years old.”
Animal didn’t say anything.
Lisbeth Krach, who didn’t know much, for instance didn’t know that Stumpe was one of them – in fact she thought he was an informant, and she looked daggers at him whenever they passed on the streets – she had overheard at the bunker when Erna Trietsch whispered to ThinMan’s Grandma, “Go talk to Stumpe.”
“So,” she said that evening at the Spormanns’, “so, Stumpe the Nazi has to cooperate in order for Berta and Fuchs to carry out their plans? Shall we gas the little one, or something? Something must be done here.”
But Sparks took his mother by the hand and guided her out and they left.
The women already had Berta Niehus on their side.
The gang and Sugar searched everywhere for the keg. They found nothing, even though they knew this vicinity inside out, every inch of it.
“Where in hell could he have hidden the thing?” Now of course it was not true that there was a pit under Hugo Beck’s porch, but all the other houses had been searched, cellars and attics, and they had investigated all cases of freshly-turned-up dirt.
They reassessed the whole matter by the little stream up in Dohmann’s thicket. It was clear and cold. They waited to catch forelles – they must be spawning by now – but they didn’t come this year.
They sat around a fire on large stones. They used sticks to poke potatoes around in the ashes of the fire. They peeled them and then ate them with their mouths open, since they were so hot.
They told stories of earlier times, like when the beer was still flowing at Erwin Zibulla’s tavern, and they would slip their hands through the open windows and take the full and half-full glasses of beer off the table while the men were off to the men’s room. They would drain the beer themselves, and then piss in the empty glasses.
They remembered the soccer games, where they would be drinking beer out of boots and out of buckets.
And then they told the story that the older folks would often tell, about the time little Frieda Bohr drank a 50-liter keg of beer, all by herself, and how it came back out both above and below, and how they paraded her through the Quarter on the back of a wagon.
It was getting dark early, now that it was the end of November. They threw more wood on the fire. They sweated in front and froze behind. And the talk just spontaneously turned, as if by itself, to Berta Niehus and Lorenz Fuchs, and to men and women in general.
“It’s an animal instinct,” Animal said, “you can’t fight that. Our dog Senta, normally you couldn’t let her out. She would bite any other dog she met. But when she would go into heat, wow, what a change. She offered her back end to everybody, even people when they petted her.”
ThinMan spoke of how nature’s cycles always come back around, of ebb and flow, summer and winter.
But Sparks, who was rather immersed in these things, said, “It’s all the time with people, the whole year long, day and night.”
Sugar was lying between Phantom’s legs and counting the stars. She said, “It’s terrible, that they don’t let boys and girls our age live together. It’s exactly the same with us as with Berta Niehus and Lorenz Fuchs.”
“It’ll all be different after the war,” Phantom said.
“Yeah,” said Sparks, “and you think after the war we can live togther with girls?”
They were all silent for a long time. ThinMan poked around in the coals. “Someday yes,” he said, “later, under Communism.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Animal said. “I asked my mother about it once, and she cuffed me on the side of the head.”
The stars couldn’t be counted anymore, but spotlights were flitting here and there. They would cross each other sometimes, and at the intersection it shone as brightly as the moon. They could hear sirens in the distance.
They put the fire out. “We need to do something to get this thing going for ThinMan’s Grandma and Fuchs,” said Phantom before they left. “We’re not going to find that keg anyway.”
“I know of something,” said Sugar, as they lay together in the straw in Bohr’s shed, naked, under a horse blanket. “Lorenz Fuchs has to prove that he’s not a Nazi anymore, nor a spy.”
“Well what?” asked Phantom.
“Well, he’s always taking trains through the night to the Western front, full of cannons and tanks and ammunition.”
“That’s crazy,” said Phantom, “they’re full of soldiers too.”
Sugar licked him on the navel. “Stop that,” Phantom said. But then she really started.
“An important train route. If it was disrupted, even for a day or two, it would be a tremendous help to the American forces, and of great benefit to Fuchs as well,” said Phantom to Stash.
He had brought the usual friendship offering along to the hiding place under the bushes: a basket packed with potatoes, bread, and some cabbage. “You should stay out of stuff like that. You try it, and there will be trouble,” said Stash. “I’ve said it often enough before.”
But Phantom brought up the idea again on another day, a cold November afternoon when he strolled the wheelchair through the neighborhood gardens.
“Aha,” said Berta Niehus, “so that’s the reason for this little outing, after all your talk about a nip of fresh air. I don’t see any reason to discuss things of that nature any further.”
Then something happened. First it sleeted all day long, and then it froze. There was ice everywhere.
People all over the whole Quarter were home, sitting at their tables, eating. A bass voice was coming from the radio, describing the positions of the bombers in relation to the quadrant map. It looked as though, at least for the next hour or two, the Ludwig-Paula quadrant, which is where they were located, was not in their path.
“Looks like we can finally sleep the whole night through,” said Anna Spormann. She hadn’t even finished the thought when there came, in the middle of the normal railcar shunting noises, a crashing noise that didn’t sound right. Then, long shrill blasts from a locomotive whistle. Shortly after that, there was the crack of iron breaking, and the air burst with a thousand explosions. Pieces of roofs flew off, and their splinters rained down onto the streets. There were showers of window glass.
All this went on for about a minute. Everybody threw themselves down onto the floor, under the tables. And then a voice called out, “Fire at the train station!”
Where the track switching station had been, there were supply cars burning.
A train loaded with ammunition, mostly grenades, had run right into the track switching station.
The track switching assistant, Alphonse, a Frenchman, was unharmed. He had been checking out iced-over switches at a spot well removed from the switching station. Lorenz Fuchs, in charge of the station’s operation, had been off at Erwin Zibulla’s little establishment, with 30 other railway workers, listening to a speech given by a Third Reich Nazi train expert on how to defend against the propaganda of the enemy, and sabotage.
The repairs took four days and nights. The route was impassable for all that time.
The offical conclusion of the official investigation, which was led by two from the Reich’s railway planning office and conducted meticulously by Lorenz Fuchs, read: 'Failure of the air brakes due to abnormally icy conditions. Physical conditions caused the air hose on the first car to break free from its position.'
Later, much later, when it was possible to talk about such things again, Phantom was to learn that there had been a meeting between Stash, Stumpe, and Berta Niehus, and for the occasion Berta had brought along a piece of hose.
But everybody else, particularly the women and Hugo Beck, thought that the beer keg was the reason that people no longer had anything against Berta Niehus and Lorenz Fuchs moving in together.
And eventually even Berta Niehus, who had come by her crafty ways over a long road through many places, even she was to give the beer the credit.