He’s right, of course. You can learn a lot about life from fishing. Tomas had taught me that, among other things. We’d talked a lot, the year we were friends. Sometimes Cassis and Reine were there and we’d talk and exchange news for small items of contraband: a stick of chewing gum or a bar of chocolate or a jar of face cream for Reine or an orange… Tomas seemed to have an unlimited supply of these items, which he distributed with casual indifference. He almost always came alone now.
Since my conversation with Cassis in the tree house I felt that things were settled between us, Tomas and me. We followed the rules; not the mad rules of our mother’s devising but simple rules that even a child of nine could understand: Keep your eyes open. Look after number one. Share and share alike. We three children had been self-sufficient for so long that it was a blissful, if unspoken relief to have someone in charge again-an adult, someone to keep order.
I remember one day. We were together, the three of us, and Tomas was late. Cassis still called him Leibniz, though Reine and I had long since progressed to first-name terms, and today Cassis was jumpy and sullen, sitting apart from the rest of us on the riverbank, pinging stones into the water. He’d had a shouting match with Mother that morning over some matter of no importance.
If our father was alive you wouldn’t dare talk to me like that!
If your father was alive he’d do as he was told, just as you do!
Beneath the lash of her tongue Cassis fled, as always. He kept Father’s old hunting jacket on a straw mattress in the tree house, and he was wearing it now, hunched in it like an old Indian in a rug. It was always a bad sign when he wore Father’s jacket, and Reine and I left him alone.
He was still sitting there when Tomas came.
Tomas noticed that at once, and sat a little farther down the bank without saying anything.
“I’ve had enough,” said Cassis at last, without looking at Tomas. “Kid’s stuff. I’m fourteen. I’ve had enough of all that.”
Tomas took off his army greatcoat and tossed it aside for Reinette to go through the pockets. I lay on my stomach on the bank and watched.
Cassis spoke up again. “Comics. Chocolate. It’s all rubbish. That’s not war. It’s nothing.” He stood up, looking agitated. “None of it’s serious. It’s just a game. My father got his head blown off and it’s all a stinking game to you, isn’t it?”
“Is that what you think?” said Tomas.
“I think you’re a Boche,” spat Cassis.
“Come with me,” said Tomas, standing up. “Girls, you stay here. Okay?”
Reine was happy to do that, to flick through the magazines and treasures in the greatcoat’s many pockets. I left her to it, and slunk after them through the undergrowth, keeping low to the mossy ground. Their voices filtered toward me distantly, like motes from the tree canopy.
I didn’t hear all of it. I was crouching low behind a fallen stump, almost afraid to breathe. Tomas unholstered his gun and held it out to Cassis.
“Hold it if you like. Feel how it feels.”
It must have felt very heavy in his hand. Cassis leveled it and looked over the sights at the German. Tomas seemed not to notice.
“My brother was shot as a deserter,” said Tomas. “He’d only just finished his training. He was nineteen, and scared. He was a machine gunner, and the noise must have sent him a little crazy. He died in a Polish village, right at the beginning of the war. I thought that if he’d been with me I could have helped him, kept him cool somehow, kept him out of trouble. I wasn’t even there.”
Cassis looked at him with hostility. “So?”
Tomas ignored the question. “He was my parents’s favorite. It was always Ernst who got to lick the pots when my mother was cooking. Ernst who got the least chores to do. Ernst who made them proud. Me? I was a plodder, just about good enough to take out the rubbish or feed the pigs. Not much else.”
Cassis was listening now. I could feel the tension between them like something burning.
“When we got the news I was home on leave. A letter came. It was supposed to be a secret, but within half an hour everyone in the village knew the Leibniz boy had deserted. My parents couldn’t understand what was going on. They behaved like people who had been struck by lightning.”
I began to crawl closer, using the fallen tree as cover. Tomas went on. “The funny thing was that I’d always thought I was the coward in the family. I kept my head down. I didn’t take risks. But from then on, to my parents I was a hero. Suddenly I’d taken Ernst’s place. It was as if he’d never existed. I was their only son. I was everything.”
“Wasn’t that…scary?” Cassis’s voice was almost inaudible.
I heard Cassis sigh then, a sound like a heavy door closing.
“He wasn’t supposed to die,” said my brother. I guessed it was Father to whom he referred.
Tomas waited patiently, seemingly impassive.
“He was always supposed to be so clever. He had everything under control. He wasn’t a coward-” Cassis broke off and glared at Tomas, as if his silence implied something. His voice and his hands were shaking. Then he began to scream in a high, tortured voice, words I could hardly make out spilling over themselves in furious eagerness to be free.
“He wasn’t supposed to die! He was supposed to sort everything out and make everything better and instead he went and got his stupid self blown up and now it’s me in charge and I…don’t…know…what to do anymore and I’m‘s-s-sc-”
Tomas waited until it was over. It took some time. Then he put out his hand and casually retrieved the gun.
“That’s the trouble with heroes,” he remarked. “They never quite live up to expectations, do they?”
“I could have shot you,” said Cassis sullenly.
“There’s more than one way of fighting back,” said Tomas.
I sensed they were reaching a close, and began to retreat back through the bushes, not wanting to be there when they turned around. Reinette was still there, absorbed in a copy of Cin'e-Mag. Five minutes later Cassis and Tomas were back, arm in arm like brothers, and Cassis was wearing the German’s cap at a rakish angle on his own head.
“Keep it,” advised Tomas. “I know where I can get another one.”
The bait was taken. Cassis was his slave from that moment.