<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Little Fireworks
Chapter 5
Sir Charles

There was a cave inside the mountain known as Dohmann’s Hill.

Its entrance was about halfway up the side, hidden by bushes. There were a thousand stories about it, mostly tales of treasure, gold coins, jewels and trinkets.

So of course since time immemorial there were people who would crawl in and search everywhere. But nobody ever found anything.

A couple of people disappeared for good, like for instance Egon Saremba in ’39. And there was even a book written about it, The Chronicles of Dohmann’s Cave, by some scholar back in 1850. It contained lots of stories, but most importantly, it had a map.

There was only one copy of the book. It used to be in the public library, but now was in the possession of Animal Ronsdorf. In the book it stated that the cave had an exit.

And everybody else had a story of their own to tell about the cave, like how crazy Klara Silvester had once been out picking raspberries on the other side of Dohmann’s Hill, and she suddenly disappeared. Everybody looked everywhere for her. The search went on late into the night.

When they finally gave up and went home, late that night, there was Klara, sitting on the steps, soaking wet, laughing.

The other person who had to know about the exit was Kaspar Flehinghaus. A couple of years earlier he went berserk, and smashed everything in his house. He threw a few things onto the back of his wagon, moved into the cave, and never moved back out.

Animal Ronsdorf followed him, and watched him closely for days, weeks, but without success.

But then one day, maybe two years ago, Animal and ThinMan were sitting on the other side of Dohmann’s Hill, on the side where the pond was. They were fishing. Suddenly they saw Kaspar Flehinghaus in the middle of the pond, on a raft, paddling. That was impossible. They had the whole pond in sight the whole time, including the beach all around that side.

There were no bushes anywhere on that beach except for the stretch of thorn bushes that they themselves were sitting under. And on the other side was a cliff that rose about fifty feet straight up out of the water. There was no way the old man could have climbed down from there. But there he was. He was paddling in their direction.

Animal and ThinMan spoke not a word. They just quietly packed up their fishing gear, kept behind the bushes, and slowly slid into the water.

They waited until the old man got closer. Then they dipped below the surface and swam maybe fifty feet further down the beach, coming up again behind an outcropping of rocks. Animal was able to keep an eye on the old man as he pulled the raft and paddle under the bushes. The old man then stood up and disappeared slowly in the direction of Rehschopp’s meadow.

The raft was made of three boards, roped together, with tin canisters tied underneath. Obviously they were going to wait there until the old man came back, even if it meant waiting for weeks.

ThinMan found his way up the hill and hid just above the cliff. Animal waited at the thorn bushes.

They waited for three hours. Then ThinMan whistled from his lookout position.

Animal slid into the water and swam over to the rock outcropping. He watched as Kaspar dragged the raft back into the water, threw a sack onto it, climbed on, and paddled to the other side. The pond was about a hundred yards wide at this point.

Animal swam out, and surfaced in the middle of the pond. The old man didn’t look around. He just kept paddling straight for the cliff’s rock wall. Animal went under one more time, and when he came back up, the old man had vanished. Gone, without a trace.

Suddenly a little light went on in Animal’s head, as he was to say later. He swam back slowly, under water. He whistled for ThinMan.

The two of them waited for an hour, and then they swam over to the spot where the old man must have landed. There they saw a hole in the rock wall, right at the water’s edge. It was maybe three feet high, maybe about that wide.

They swam into it. It was pretty dark in there. They found the wall, felt around, found the raft. Next to it they found a rope. But they didn’t climb it. Instead, they turned around and swam back.

But the next day they came back with carbide lamps, and they found the exit to the cave.

The hole inside the rock wall, under the light of the lamps, turned out to be a grotto about fifteen feet high. About halfway up the back wall of it there was a semi-circular hole. The rope led up into there. They climbed it. They found themselves in a hall full of columns and pillars, stalactites and stalagmites.

From that day on they were there constantly. In a couple of weeks they knew this part of the cave as well as the part on the other side.

It took less than three hours to get from one opening to the other, through a labyrinthine system of passageways, halls, and grottoes. They sketched detailed maps. They gave places names like Spider’s Way, Blue Niche, Phantom’s Corner etc etc.

There was a real scene with old Flehinghaus. He had set up for himself a comfy little spot in Bones Grotto, next to a little underground pool. It was quite a nest he had decorated for himself there, with straw and blankets, a kerosene cookstove, carbide lamps, even some raggedy furniture.

“I’ll kill every one of you, ratta tatta blood!” he shrieked. He pulled out a long knife and danced around. What with his long shadows jumping around on the walls, and his screaming, and the whole cave echoing and reverberating with the noise, it was pretty creepy.

But they talked to him for a long time, and gave him some schnaps. Eventually he got used to them.

Then, last winter, he suddenly developed a dry cough. He couldn’t even eat by himself anymore. Sugar had to feed him. Finally they laid him on his wagon and took him to the hospital, where he lasted two months.

The day before he died, he called for Sugar. But it was already too late. He wanted to whisper something to her, but even though she had her ear right next to his mouth, she couldn’t understand a word.

“He knew where the treasure is, and wanted to tell me,” Sugar was often to say later, like when it was raining and they were all hanging out in Bohr’s shed telling stories. When she would say that, everyone would grow quiet and dreamy.

A couple of days after they heard about Pahlmann, they set out early in the morning for Dohmann’s thicket, to pick raspberries. Animal’s mother went along with them. She knew all the best spots.

They also wanted to look after the business of cave furnishings. They took along a couple of blankets, a kerosene cookstove, some lamps, and a basket full of potatoes, just to have there for emergencies.

Herta Ronsdorf showed them some places where the berry bushes were thick. Then they separated.

The grass and the bushes were still wet with dew, but the sun was shining. Phantom was picking berries with Sugar. When they had filled their buckets they lay down on a blanket and nuzzled around. They were just about to really lay into it when they heard Animal’s mother calling, “Hello! Over here, quick!”

They jumped up and ran over. They found Herta Ronsdorf in front of a thick patch of evergreen bushes. Within moments, Animal, Sparks, and ThinMan also arrived on the scene.

Herta Ronsdorf said, “There’s a soldier lying in these bushes here. An Englishman. And he’s alive.”

Animal already had his knife in hand. He tried to get past his mother, but she held him back.

“He’s wounded,” she said. “It looks like he’s about your father’s age. If you so much as touch him, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

Herta crawled in under the low heavy bushes. The others followed her.

Then they saw him. He was lying in a little ditch, wearing a torn grey uniform. He lay with his face looking upward, eyes open.

“I turned him over,” Herta said. “He has a bad wound on the back of his head. He’s lying on my jacket.”

They all slid down into the ditch, all except ThinMan, who crawled back out to keep watch. Maybe someone else had heard Herta as well.

“So that’s how they look,” Phantom thought.

The Englishman had a moustache, thinning hair, and was smeared all over with blood.

“That’s what happens to you,” Animal said, “when you spend your time in the sky smashing everything on the ground to pieces, women and children alike.”

Sugar put on her best Radio Free Germany voice and said, “And are these our allies, then, friends of the working classes and the oppressed?”

The Englishman shut his eyes.

Herta said to Animal, “Quick, get me some water. Here, use this bucket.” Animal ran.

“And you others fetch the blankets and everything else, and bring branches too, to make a stretcher,” Phantom called out to the others.

He knelt down next to the man. He asked, “Do you understand me?” The Englishman opened his eyes and said something, but Phantom didn’t understand it.

When the others came back, they gave him water. He would have drained the pail right then and there, but after a few swallows Herta said, “That’s enough for now.”

They put him on the stretcher they had made out of branches and blankets, and they carried him into the cave. They set him down in Phantom’s Corner.

There were some first-aid supplies there too, and Herta bandaged him up. “At least a couple of ribs broken, too,” she said. “How in the world did he get here?”

“Parachute,” Animal said. “He hid it somewhere.”

Herta Ronsdorf was supposed to be on the day shift today. Animal and Sparks went back with her, to fetch some more things, and particularly to fetch Anna Kusnevski, the Polish woman, who was a nurse at the factory.

They didn’t come back until late that afternoon. The Englishman had thrown up, drunk some more water, thrown up again. He had whimpered a couple of times and said something, but nobody understood him.

Anna Kusnevski took all his things off, washed him, gave him a shot, made him new bandages. That took a couple of hours. After she was finished she wanted to stay there. But Phantom said, “No, you have to go back. Otherwise it’ll be Search City in the Quarter, and we don’t need any drama like that right at this particular moment.”

She left, but reluctantly.

“She’ll heal him, you just watch,” Sparks said. “It won’t be more than a couple of days before she’s on top of him and doesn’t come down again. She’s sharp as an axe.”

But it was a couple of weeks before he could stand up and walk around a little bit and look after himself. An odd type, this one, who went back to shaving before he could even sit up properly. He would point to the things he wanted. He would get upset if he couldn’t make himself understood, to the point that Animal tapped him on the chest with his finger and said, “You ain’t at Chamberlain Castle, boy. Just wait till you get a little better.”

He didn’t speak a word of German. Furthermore, he had no inclination to learn any, even though they held things up to him and named their names.

He was standing up and hobbling around somewhat with the help of a cane when Phantom offered him a cigarette. He said, “No, Nazi.”

Phantom couldn’t stand it. He grabbed the man, who wasn’t much larger than himself, by his jacket. He shook him. He said, “You say that one more time and we just leave you here to rot, you got that?” But his face remained set like flint.

It was obvious from the insignia on his sleeve that he was an officer. He had no papers. “Probably ate them,” Animal said. “These guys are capable of anything.”

They were unable to reach him. Phantom discussed the problem with Stash and the others. They decided that ThinMan’s Grandma, who knew English, should go talk with him and set a few things straight.

Now that, of course, was quite a big deal for the old one. She put on her dress with the yellow flowers. She wrapped her fox pelt around her neck, even though it was the middle of August, and sweltering. She placed her hat with the enormous brim neatly upon her head. She spritzed herself with cologne. “Late afternoon,” she said, “is exactly the right time to have a talk with an officer from the Royal Air Force. We should have whiskey, scotch whiskey, such as they drink in the clubs at Kensington.”

ThinMan and Phantom pushed the wheelchair and had to listen to all this. They stopped at the entrance to the cave. Phantom whistled. Animal brought the Englishman out, and took off his blindfold.

He stood there, leaning on his cane, Phantom’s father’s jacket slung over his shoulder, a white bandage around his head. Across from him sat Berta Niehus in her wheelchair, costumed like Sarah Leander. They asked each other questions for awhile, until the old woman started a speech of sorts. She spoke for quite awhile. The Englishman asked a few questions in between, then he talked, then they both talked. They also laughed.

After this, Tommy was a changed man. He went around shaking everybody’s hand, and he clapped Phantom on the shoulder. Then the blindfold was placed back over his eyes. As Animal was leading him away, the old woman said, “Sir Charles is our friend.”

She gave them a report as they wheeled her home. Commander of a flying squad, his plane was shot down over the Ruhr. He had been able to jump from the plane, and made it down okay. He walked south for two nights. In the last night he slipped and fell onto some rocks. He managed to drag himself to Dohmann’s thicket, to the spot where they found him. He was sure he had fallen into the hands of some Youth Squad who wanted to fatten him up and then slaughter him. “That’s why he was not friendly. He went to Oxford, and is sufficiently educated.”

Later, when Phantom was re-reporting all this, the short Mr. Pottmann said, “So now they think our children are capturing foreigners and slaughtering them. I tell you, the whole world is barfing at the very sound of the word ‘German.’ And it’ll be that way for another thousand years at least. That’s one more thing the Fascists have arranged for us.”

Chahlie, which is what they called the Englishman, got better and better. But Anna Kusnevski was afraid he might have a relapse, and she returned to the cave more and more often.

One morning Phantom was out in Dohmann’s thicket, checking on some traps they had set, and in the cave he found Anna Kusnevski lying next to Chahlie. She had been there all night.

“I’m never going back to Wanske the medic. He’s the worst,” she said. “Never wants to do anything but screw.”

“Since when do you have anything against that?” Phantom wanted to know.

But Anna Kusnevski began to cry, and Chahlie said something in an angry tone of voice. He put his arm around her.

Phantom tried for a long time to talk to her. The goons would be after them with the hounds. They would both be snatched, and then nobody could hide in the cave ever again. But all to no avail. He went back immediately to get the others.

They brought a couple of cats with them, and they left them to play at the entrance to the cave. Inside the cave they barricaded the passageways to the back part of the cave with large pieces of rock. They went to hide in Sugar’s Grotto, close to the cave’s exit.

The goons arrived that afternoon, with two German shepherds. Sparks and ThinMan were in the area. They had a sack with them.

“What are you doing here?” demanded one of the men.

Sparks came closer and said, “We’re collecting silver ribbons.” Silver ribbons were thin strips of aluminum which the bombers rained down to fool the radar.

“Have you seen anything here in the vicinity? A woman, a Polish woman, has disappeared.”

“No,” they said.

The dogs, on long leashes, were sniffing around the bushes at the entrance to the cave. “Here’s the cave,” called one. “You stay here,” the other one said to them. They ran over to the cave entrance.

But a few minutes later they and the hounds returned, still sniffing. “She was here,” one of them said. “Probably she spent the night and then headed on.”

They could hear the rumble of a storm brewing. “Quick,” one of them said, “we’ll lose the scent when it starts raining.” And the whole troop continued on their way, back in the direction from which they had come.

Fifteen minutes later the storm arrived. It came down in sheets and torrents. The danger was over for the moment.

Stash wanted to know if the Englishman was behaving in a sensible manner, was he well-disciplined. That was important, because under no circumstances could he be allowed to leave the cave. “We’re making sure of that,” Phantom said, neglecting to mention the fact that the Polish woman was there with him.