When the Last Leaf Falls
James Michael Pratt
“Cupid in these latter times has probably laid aside his bow and arrow and uses fire arms…” Hawthorne
The Story Teller
Visits to another world happen when you are transported to extra-ordinariness by stealth; because an author is forgotten, and characters become real, and because when the story ends you want more.
This worried him. After all, his life had not been that extraordinary. The simple story he’d share tonight was one of those tales where mystery shrouds the ordinary people from sight, but also makes an improbable romantic adventure come to life.
He was one of the main protagonists in a tale he certainly could not have invented—yet he wondered, and doubted, how the storyteller might become necessarily undetectable.
And there was the fear—very normal for every author’s first book reading—about boring the audience. He didn’t suppose he would be compared to Ernest Hemingway or Harper Lee, especially since first-time author Steven Anderson had a personal stake in the sentimental tale.
He took a deep breath and tried to bury his concerns with a ready smile as he entered the warm cabin filled with local folk. Greetings were exchanged with the hosts and guests as the crackle of a blazing fire of pine warned of the rapidly falling temperatures just outside the southwestern Virginia community near The Meadows of Dan. Steven cleared his throat, took a sip of water and began:
“This is a simple story,” he started, as he searched the faces of those book club attendees gathered in the cozy great room. “It isn’t made of cliff hangers, or twists and turns only to resolve themselves in surprise endings,” he added, followed by a pause to gather his thoughts.
“Rather, this is an uncomplicated account of a man and the two women he loved—in both war and peace—which continues to touch other lives in unexpected ways today.
“My father had spoken of a sacred symbol many times since World War Two ended, and yet my late mother had kept the knowledge of that from him. Love does strange things to a man, and some tokens of remembrance carry heavier meanings than others; even in dreams.
“It might not make sense to the reader, but if you knew how many nights my father had fought the war in his sleep since coming home, and then how mysteriously promises made by two lovers in a world at war came to such a startling conclusion, you would nod your head, smile, and understand.
“See, romantic love, the kind everyone longs for, doesn’t always come to the seeker even once in a lifetime. For most of us, we find that a special someone grows into our hearts over time. If we are among the lucky, love is sweeter in the end than it was in the beginning.
“I was one of those lucky ones, but my story could not have even begun without his…” The author paused to gather his emotions, which filled with memories, had suddenly caught him off guard.
“And…” he began again, “…although it only takes one domino to start the motion for all things to fall in or out of place in our lives, I suspect more is at play. So I ask you to be open to the possibilities found in this story.
“The miracle I witnessed one week in June while on a trip of closure to nearly seven-decade old war wounds, I now share with you. You may determine whether I am delusional, or if this has been a heaven blessed fantasy only a few are given to enjoy during their journeys upon the earth.
“Mathieu, from our story called it, The Book of Life. As you meet him in these pages you will find that while we each plot our own dramas, sometimes it is other lives, who in passing, engrave the poetic verse which connects one unexpected event to another.
“In the end, you may come to know the truth of a saying my mother Alice shared many times over the years, but only now makes sense. It is this: ‘Love, like the mighty oak from a tiny acorn grows…’
The author flipped open to chapter one and began to read…
One year ago
“The need to be with Dad was greater than any other time in the previous twelve months, now that this was an anniversary weekend of not only World War Two’s famous D-Day landings at Normandy but of a double tragedy for both my father and me. It was June two years ago when Yvonne left me, and just last June that my father and I lost Mom.
“I wanted to press ahead and arrive at Anderson Mills before nightfall. I hadn’t gotten much sleep yesterday, and certainly hoped I would make it home and find my room welcoming and warm; a sanctuary from the madness of the past year.
“It is dangerous enough when darkness falls on the Blue Ridge Mountains…” he read to the room filled with fellow Virginians.
Darkness Falling on the Blue Ridge
Darkness had fallen on the one horse and buggy town where Howie had lived his entire life. Lonely, he gazed out from the parlor through the oversized picture-frame window as if he were expecting it to come alive, just as a television screen does with the flick of the remote.
He had done this more and more lately in hopes someone, anyone, would come driving up the long entrance to the farmhouse to spend some time with him.
Behind the yawning grayness of forming thunderheads, an azure canopy, darkened by the setting sun, now started to fill with one million lights. Each starlit orb fought to break free from the cloud-dressed curtain; here and there peeking out to remind Howie that God’s heavens, beyond wind and rain, never really slept. The downpour would start as soon as the light show fell behind the violent rolling wall of storm clouds growing over the Blue Ridge. This would make it a dangerous night for Steven, or any driver on these narrow mountain passes.
From his easy-chair by the fire, he had alternately read the material his son sent days before, and then setting it aside, he looked for car lights from Route 6 three miles down the hill.
The car has to turn up Bluebird Lane to Turkey Creek by the grist mill. Can’t be Steven, he decided each time a vehicle passed that landmark heading north.
He had waited for his son to arrive and spend the night with him before retiring. As a recent widower, a status his son and he both now had in common, the loneliness was getting old.
“You don’t understand being lonely, do ya boy? Always been someone there for you,” he said as he reached out a hand to stroke the head of his constant canine companion. “If it weren’t for you, being so alone would be unbearable,” he added.
It was a quiet night, except for the growing sound of cannons from above echoing across the valley. Unusual low temperatures for early June, accompanied by a light summer drizzle, caused him to put logs in the open hearth.
But then a frigid night, even in early summer, was never that unexpected at Anderson’s Mill. Here in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains the weather could change on a dime, and the normal quiet evening could also turn into Mother Nature’s symphony; like a kettle drum beating out booming rhythms backed by percussion downpours.
“Would rather have it like this now,” he determined as the thunder over Anderson’s Mill intensified. Howie Anderson welcomed distraction, some noise, anything to take his mind off the coming trip, which had filled him with considerable anxiety.
Whiskey, his German Sheppard companion of twelve years, snorted in occasional fits of restlessness on a nearby cushion Alice made for their now feeble hound when he was just a pup.
“He still thinks she’ll walk in and give him love. It must confuse the old boy,” the seventy-nine-year-old said aloud. Howie fidgeted with the pages of the map book Steven had sent. It was a book of city and country routes, towns, and an accompanying itinerary of their trip to Europe.
He had gone over the map and always came to the same two spots. One, an American Military Cemetery in Belgium outside Neuville-en-Condroz, twelve miles southwest of Liege, and the other was a small village near St. Lo, France where he met his first love… and also first experienced real heartbreak.
He sipped on his cup of chamomile, a tea Alice always had prepared just before retiring each evening. “It doesn’t taste as good as hers,” he said putting it aside on the lamp stand.
He returned his attention to the long gravel driveway now barely visible from where he sat. The thunderheads had finally closed together. Completely dark outside now, the driving rain intensified as the temperature dropped. The living room window, through which he gazed, seemed a hypnotizing movie screen. It filled with an occasional flash of light to offer another vision; a mental image from memory of a place near Liege, Belgium, and a night and day much colder than this one.
The Ardennes, Belgium December 20, 1944
“Quiet.” The sergeant held up his hand and went down on one knee. It was early morning, the fourth day of the German counter-offensive. The 9th Recon Troop had patrols of ill-equipped Americans inching through the dense forest growth for one hour and it was nearing sunrise.
Still dark, they had gone fifty yards from the tree line, where they had left the M-8 armored car and 50 caliber mounted Willys jeep. The patrol scouted into a clearing of over two hundred meters wide and one-half mile long. They knew the enemy was out there, and it was their thankless job to determine where exactly, the front line began. In this game of hide and seek, the consequences were always deadly.
Immediately the signal passed along the line and the men found themselves frozen stiff in place—a feature of combat easily achieved on this sub-zero temperature day. Suddenly the roar of heavy armor engines and clanking of tank treads echoed across the open field. The beasts appeared from the trees two hundred meters before them.
“Tanks! Down! Everybody down!”
“Geez, Sarge. We got to get back to the M-8,” Anderson called. Corporal Howard Anderson had the point, and along with a Thompson submachine gun slung over his shoulder, carried the platoon’s only bazooka.
Sergeant Fitch eased up alongside him. He pulled out his field glasses. The sunrise was upon them, but still the cloud cover and foggy mists dimmed a breaking daylight on the horizon. But there was no mistaking the monstrous iron form, the steel against steel sounds of tank treads coming at them through the early morning haze, and the roar of the diesel driven killing machines—until the unmistakable form of one of the German Panther V medium tanks appeared breaking through the tree line into the open field.
“We’re dead men if he gets off a shot. You know that don’t you, Howie?”
“You think they have us spotted?”
“Doesn’t matter. They’ve got to be as tired and cold as we are. We hold fire unless they fire first. Panthers have some weak spots but don’t go down with a bazooka shot unless we hit the underbelly or a solid side shot.”
“Well Sarge, as I see it we got one good shot with that little rise on the field, and then that ditch near the trees fifty yards back is all we can hope for. Maybe we should beat it back to the vehicles…”
“We’d be cut down and you know it,” he answered. “Okay… This… is… what we do,” the sergeant answered, teeth chattering. “You shoot. We scoot. Everyone goes, ‘cept you Anderson,” he said. Bone-numbing coldness running through each deliberate word he spoke, Sergeant Fitch tried to shake it off. “So damn cold,” he muttered as he took another look through his field glasses. “You got to make it into the soft underside or we are all dead men.”
Even if Howie got a direct hit, both men knew the score. The chances of a lone soldier winning a shoot-out with the finest all around tank the Germans produced was somewhere near zero.
“Sarge. We got artillery?” Howie nervously asked.
Howie jerked up from his easy chair as the thunder boomed and lightning clapped directly overhead now. Whiskey growled, equally roused from his slumber by the jarring noise.
This cinematic night vision played as real as that day in the Ardennes. His heart racing, he sat in stunned semi-awareness that it had been the same frequent nightmare he had endured since that December day in 1944. He had been the last man, caught out in the open and alone. It had been cold; so very cold. The thought of being the last man standing had always terrified him then, as it continued to do to him now.
He rubbed his hands against his head. Howie’s tired mind was calculating how he could dismiss the ancient memories, as if in massaging his head long or hard enough, he might erase the visions of killing that terrorized him in his sleeping hours.
Enough to give a grown man a heart attack, he grumbled, becoming aware of the hypnotic powers his memory possessed. You’d think I would have buried the war by now, he considered as he allowed himself to relax back into the cushioned comfort of the recliner. As he did, the telephone rang. He reached for the cordless phone sitting next to him on the lamp table and fumbled until he found the connect button.
“Dad? This is Steve,” he heard. “My flight was late. I’m not able to make it tonight. The weather has turned for the worse here in Atlanta. I’ll be up in the morning.”
“Oh… Okay, son,” Howie huffed.
“Dad! You okay?”
“Yes. Okay. Some lightening, thunder… I was dreaming, and I thought…” He couldn’t seem to connect the dots; what he was thinking about, with what he wanted to say. “I’m confused,” he finally offered.
“Dad, listen to me. Relax. Take something to help you sleep. Are you in bed?”
“No. I was… I was… waiting for you and fell asleep in the living room. I wanted to be awake when you arrived but couldn’t seem…”
“Dad, it’ll be okay. I’ll be there around noon tomorrow. And dad?”
“Sleep peacefully,” Steven voiced from Atlanta.
“I love you son. You just be careful.”
“I love you too. Good night, Pop.”
“Good night, son.”
Howie took a moment to try to figure out how to disconnect but finally got up from his chair and simply put the cordless phone in the cradle.
Darn things! He thought. I think I’ll get the rotary phone out of the closet and ask Steven to attach it when he gets here. At least, that way I’ll know how to hang a phone up.
Howie clapped to get his dog’s attention. Whiskey raised an eye open then followed his master into the bedroom. Howie had readied himself for bed earlier, but now took his dentures out and placed them in the solution on the bathroom counter. Army doctors, he mumbled.
He’d had a complete set of natural teeth when he enlisted in the Army at age eighteen in January 1943. By the time he got home from the war in 1945 he’d had half of them replaced by eager Army dentists practicing on GIs in preparation for their post-war dental careers.
He stopped and looked at the poorly made-up queen size poster bed; the same bed they had slept together in since they married sixty years ago. “I never could straighten a sheet or turn the covers like her,” he grumbled.
Howie was uncertain about being alone and going to sleep on a night where he had already experienced one war nightmare. He lay himself down for the evening on his side of the bed— always on his side and never on Alice’s—and hoped the nightmares of being alone, with the enemy closing in, would cease.
He turned with child-like innocence to find her pillow still fluffed. He patted the empty space anyway and tried to content himself with the feeling that she was watching over him.
Next time we lay together it will be out there, he considered as he focused his tired eyes out to the front acreage now illuminated from sporadic lightning flashes.
Whiskey snorted and went easily to sleep in his spot on his bedroom cushion. “Must be nice being a dog,” Howie lamented as he wrestled with the desire to sleep, weighed against his anxiety.
He needed real rest, but not at the risk of another midnight torture session. He thought of abandoning sleep to a pot of coffee, but no, tomorrow was too important for the artificial alertness. His trip to Europe with Steven required an attentive rested mind, and heart. Steven would want him to be alert, would want to ask questions about his war years. Now the fear of dreaming himself back in time to that cold day in the Ardennes where he stood alone against advancing Germans had stirred him to insomnia.
I don’t have to dream it. I was with Fitch. Caught in the open, he mentally posed to himself as he lay back in the bed and stared at the ceiling. The thunder rolled and the lightning still crackled but had distanced itself from the township of Anderson’s Mill now.
Where was I? he pondered. “Fitch…” he said.