600 Liters of Wine
Six hundred liters of wine is six hundred liters of wine.
There weren’t enough casks for everybody to have a whole one, so they poured it into flasks, pots, urns, tankards, canning jars and tins.
“I can’t stand the smell of the stuff anymore,” Sparks complained.
“You just wait,” ThinMan said. “In a couple of weeks you’ll be draining the last drops and looking for more. Isn’t that always the way? If you have enough of anything you don’t want it, but if there isn’t any around, then you’re crazy for it.”
They were hanging out in the larger of the rooms off the passageway under the tracks. They were near the exit, where there was fresh air. They had just drained another one, and they were taking it pretty easy. Everything and everyone stunk of wine. The carbide lamp was hissing, and they were all fairly foggy. Phantom was playing the Sonata in A Major, by Mozart.
“Howsabout you cool it,” said Sugar, “with your Mozart. A person can get enough of it.”
Animal, who was lying on a goatskin, using a keg for a pillow, took a deep swill from the flask next to him. “In wine there is truth,” he said. “That’s a cliche, but there’s something to it. Not the same with schnaps. No, but wine... ” he traced an arc through the air, smiled, and closed his eyes.
“Quite the preacher, isn’t he?” said Sugar.
Sparks sat on a keg, head propped up on his fists. “With the Catholics,” he said, “every morning the priest gets a good one on with his wine, but he doesn’t give the others any. All they get is this little paper wafer and he tells them it’s supposed to be the body of Jesus.”
“That’s a lie,” said ThinMan. “None of the little piggies believe that.”
Sparks snickered. “That may be what you think, ThinMan, but they think it’s all true, everything their priest says. When he’s got wine, he’s got truth, they think. And do you know why?” Sparks held his canning jar full of wine up to the lamp. It sparkled and glowed red. “Namely because they think it’s blood. The blood of Jesus.”
They all stared at the jar, speechless. “Enough,” said ThinMan. “I don’t feel so hot.”
“There are people who believe things,” Sugar said. “For instance, old Dr. Strathmann. He was a wino too, and he thought he had lived a former life as an owl.”
They all swapped stories about people they knew or people they had heard about, and all the things they were willing to believe were true.
Phantom said, “It’s the same with the Fascists. All the stuff they claim is true, it’s just fairytales. Not so with us. We don’t take such nonsense for the truth.”
“Exactly,” said ThinMan. “We’re standing on the very foundation of knowledge.”
Animal woke up on that one. “Say that one more time,” he said.
ThinMan said, one more time, “We’re standing on the very foundation of knowledge.”
Animal looked like he wanted to answer, but instead he waved his hand through the air. It landed in the vicinity of the flask. He took another serious swallow, laid himself back out and was asleep again.
They were all getting pretty tired. Before they nodded out, Phantom said, “When there’s school again, real school, have we ever got a damned lot of learning to do. Knowledge is precisely what we absolutely don’t have.”
Later, when it was dark, they transported all their empty containers back home.
Stash was furious when he heard about their adventure. “That was way too dangerous!” he was still roaring, as he took a cask for his people, and another one for the alderbush hollow.
For the next few days there was nothing to be had anywhere except red wine, in all possible fashions. Herta Ronsdorf, for instance, made an aspic. At the Trietsches’ there was Wine Creme Torte. Phantom’s mother made wine soup with croutons. And when Phantom had to deliver something over to Pottmann’s, as he left Olga pressed two little biscuits into his hand. They looked like macaroons. Phantom bit into one, and immediately spit it back out: red wine, browned, reduced with beets and salt.
The next morning Phantom’s mother said, “Well, today let’s head over the mountain to Lohkamp’s, with a couple of bottles of wine, and see what we can get for them.”
Grete Lohkamp was Phantom’s mother’s sister. Her husband Ferdinand was a local bigwig. They had a farmhouse, with lots of cows. Nonetheless Phantom and his mother seldom got anything from them. Maybe a little butter now and then, a bottle of milk or a couple of eggs, when Grete would come over to visit her sister, but even that she would have to hide from her husband.
Anna Spormann was never exactly thrilled to go over there, since of course she couldn’t stand her brother-in-law, and of course he too wanted nothing to do with his blacksheep relations. But at this point the issue was something to eat.
They set out midmorning, over Dohmann’s Hill, past the factory quarry. The heat was thick. Not a cloud in the sky. Over hill and dale they went, through fields of ripe corn. The ears scratched their necks and hands as they passed. The air shimmered in heat waves over the yellow-white rye.
They were thirsty. At the edge of the next patch of trees Anna Spormann said, “I could stand a little drink of something just now.” So they stretched out under an oak. Phantom took one of the bottles out of his pack. They both had a long drink.
“Red wine,” his mother said. “Twice in my whole life have I drunk this stuff, and this makes the third time. Back then, in the 20’s, there were a lot of Italians around here. They were here building the roads. We got to be good friends with a couple of them. They lived at Bohr’s, in the attic. One of them was named Carlo, a slender sociable fellow, always singing. No matter where I was, he always seemed to be pretty close by. And then one day, on the stairs, he took me by the arm – naturally I didn’t know Papa back then – ‘You are my sun moon and stars,’ he said. Well, that’s how they are, so fiery. And once I drank a whole bottle of red wine with him. On the first of May.”
They took another swallow. “They have it easier down there,” she said. “Nothing but wine and sun. And here it’s always cold.”
“Umm,” said Phantom, “we’re not exactly freezing right now.”
The sun was directly overhead. They were halfway up the mountain. They looked out over the blistering cornfields. Cows were standing in what shadows they could find, under hedges and trees, absolutely not moving. A couple of buzzards circled overhead. Once they heard the roar of an engine starting up, but then the hot midday stillness resumed. Crickets buzzed, but otherwise there was nothing.
“I wonder how Papa is doing,” Anna Spormann said. They watched the pair of buzzards and thought about Heini Spormann.
They took another couple of sips, and then fell asleep under the oak.
When they woke up it was well into the afternoon. They began climbing again through the trees. They checked on the year’s nut crop. Not good. But there were a lot of acorns. But no mushrooms.
As they came out of the woods, they saw meadows before them. A stream flowed through fields of wildflowers. There was a pair of tall oaks, and in the middle of it all was the Lohkamp farmhouse, next to a pond. Still and calm. A dog was barking. Everything was just like in the painting Peaceful Landscape, which hung over the sofa at the Krachs’.
Look at that, we’re already here,” said Anna Spormann. “The second time on the red wine was there below, at Grete’s wedding to this Nazi, before he became such a big shot. You could already tell he was going to turn into a goon, the way he went on, drunk on his own imaginings and on the wine. ‘Soon the times will come,’ he said, ‘when a farmer can be a farmer again, on this holy earth.’ You see, they already owned the whole kit and kaboodle. ‘And here, the wine,’ – he held his glass before the lamp, I can remember it like it was yesterday – ‘this wine is like the blood from all the battles where we have fought for freedom.’
“Well, that was too much for Papa and me. There were blows and a general scuffle.” “Oh well,” she added after a pause, “you have the blood all right, but there’s still no freedom. I think I’ll have one more sip.”
They had brought eight bottles with them, but there were only six left.
They were both a little tipsy and giggly as they ran down the mountainside, grabbing bushes and branches to steady themselves. The dog was yelping. Grete was standing in the doorway. She and Anna hugged each other. Then they sat at the long table in the kitchen and began talking nonstop.
Later Lohkamp came in, large and fat. “Well look who’s here,” he thought to himself, “I bet I know why she’s here. Probably thinks Hitler is just about done for.” He could see it in her smirking face. “She just might find herself clawing to get out of her grave,” etc etc, he thought.
Phantom, who was standing by the window, was still a little drunk. He laughed as he watched how this large gross man was carrying on. Lohkamp circled the table. He yelled, “Yes, well you dirty swine you, why might we be hearing from you?”
“Oh please be still,” his wife said. “We’re just finally having a chance to visit.”
“I absolutely will not be still,” he bellowed. “We’ve been still way too long, just sitting quietly and taking it. We’ve been much too kind to these people as it is,” etc etc.
Phantom moved from the window to the chair where his pack was. He felt inside for his 765 Walther. He found it. He sat down beside the pack and interrupted the quarrel, saying, “You flop, you haven’t even managed to make yourself one baby, have you?”
There was a moment of silence. Lohkamp stared at Phantom. He steered around the table to where Phantom was sitting. Phantom had his 765 Walther in hand. Phantom said, “Another peep out of you and you’ll find yourself flat on the floor. For good.”
Lohkamp stood his ground. He raised his arms into the air.
“Come on, Mama, let’s get out of here,” Phantom said. And Grete began to howl frightfully. “Come on!” Phantom said once more to his mother.
But Grete threw her arms around her sister’s neck and said, “Then take me with you! I can’t stand it anymore!”
And then Lohkamp also began to howl. He sat down at the table, his head in his hands. Phantom was taken aback. He thought to himself, “This is some kind of trick.”
But it was no trick. He was bawling, his body fairly racked with sobs. Phantom was fairly befuddled. What he wanted to do was spit on his uncle’s bald head. But his mother said, “It’s all right now. How about if we open a bottle of wine?”
So she took two bottles out of the pack, and uncorked them with her teeth. She took a pair of glasses off the table. “Cheers, and cheer up,” she said.
And amazingly enough, Lohkamp actually dried up. He wiped the tears from his face and drained the glass in one gulp. After the second glass he laid his hand on Anna Spormann’s hand. “It’s my nerves,” he said. “They’re completely shot. It just can’t go on.”
“It always goes on,” Anna Spormann said.
Phantom went outside and over to the pond. He lay down. But he kept an eye on the door of the house.
Later some of the prisoner-farmhands came back from the fields with their scythes in hand. They headed for the house. So Phantom went back inside.
They all sat around the great table, talking and drinking. Then they had real fried potatoes, with onions and bacon. They got both packs filled with butter and ham, eggs, cheese, and bread.
Finally they set out. Back on top of the mountain they turned around to take one last look. The sun was just going down. Lohkamp’s house stood squat and dark between the trees. The pond was lit up in glowing red tones. Down below, a herd of cows was heading home, with women behind them, singing. Phantom’s mother sat down on a rock. “Isn’t that wonderful?” she said. “A picture of peace.”
“Come on, we have to go,” said Phantom. “The police will be out soon, and if they catch us, it’s all over.”
“So that scene below, it doesn’t tempt you at all?”
“Come on,” Phantom said, “we have to hurry.”
His mother sighed. “I just don’t know. You’re really still a child. But sometimes I wonder. And so quick with that pistol in your hand, so tough. When I think about how it was for us earlier, I mean even then it wasn’t exactly a bowl of whipped cream.”
Far away there were sirens wailing. “So,” said Phantom, “it’s Full Alarm already. So let’s get going already.”
There was still a celebration to be had that night. It was past curfew time. Even Stash sneaked over, as well as Lena from Minsk.
The women fried pancakes and bacon. Smoke hung heavily in the room. People were draped next to and all over one another. The wine flowed in streams. Makevka said it was the sort of thing you really only read about in books.
The kerosene lamps burned bright. The sharp smell of tobacco, mixed with other things, tickled the nostrils. “A toast to our young gang, and to Berta Niehus,” said the short Mr. Pottmann.
Finally there was an end to the pancakes, piping hot and strewed with brown sugar. People told stories from yesteryear. Phantom and the others knew most of them already. “Tell us one more time about how you gave the officers at the border such a thrashing,” said Animal.
And they all laughed over it one more time, how Dautzenberg had set that captain right down on top of the hot stove, and the officer had cried, “Long live the revolution!”
They sang songs, softly, and Stash said a few words appropriate to the occasion.
Then it was time to go, one after another. They sneaked quietly back home.