December 31, 1944, 11:50 p.m.
Big Laurel, Tennessee
Above his head, in the cold, dark, wind-creaked rafters of the tobacco barn, Charley Bandy sees withered souls.
Clustered five stalks to a stick, stepped several rows deep, they are hung upside down as though in punishment. The ten thousand leaves fill this lower reach of heaven. The air reeks of tar, thick, like the times Bandy has smelled blood.
Brown and drying, crowded and alike, these are not the souls of soldiers, Bandy thinks. No. The spirits of the battle-torn shine and are upright in a much higher neighborhood. There's room among war heroes where they are; what they earned for eternity with their courage and their deaths is space, distinction. Bandy is having a melancholy moment, he knows; he's being drawn back. He shakes his noggin to rattle the pull away. But the tobacco leaves drip their sticky scent and the odor is so much like gun smoke and gauze and the morning mists of Europe.
He lowers his gaze to the dirt floor of the barn. Several empty tobacco baskets lie about, waiting for another moist day to put the tobacco in case, that condition where the humidity is high to make the leaves supple enough to be handled. But this has been a dry winter, and the burley tobacco leaves, though sufficiently air-cured now dangling on their sticks overhead, can't be touched without breaking like ancient parchment. This Christmas came and went with little gift money. The family is edgy, waiting for the weather to cooperate and put the tobacco in case long enough to bundle it into hands, arrange the hands into the big woven baskets, then truck it all to the auction hall down in Marshall. The family needs to make some money, get school clothes, fix some machinery, buy next season's seed. Only a third of the leaves have been stripped and separated. The lowest leaves, called "lugs," and the paltry tips at the top all get tossed on a pile outside the barn to be used as ground cover and fertilizer. The broad middle leaves, the "smokers," get sold for bulk tobacco. The best leaves make it as far as cigar wrappers. A good, heavy harvest of smokers pays some bills.
Inside the house, Bandy's mom and dad, wife, sister and brother-in-law, dozen or so uncles and aunts and cousins and their kin wait for 1945 to arrive in another ten minutes. Every one of them lives nearby, a dog wouldn't get tired jogging between all their houses, either in Big Laurel, Little Laurel, Shelton Laurel, or on a rural road associated with no town. They are tobacco farmers up here in the Appalachian hollers. The clefts between the high slopes are narrow, and arable land comes only in slim patches, always beside the roads. Nothing makes a buck better on so little land as tobacco. The Bandys, the Ketchums, the Wallins are woven together by marriages and births like the tobacco baskets, broad and firm and white, hundred-year-old clans of soil and nicotine, pocketknives, and Saturday nights at the Masonic dance hall.
The clamor of his family's revelry generational, those kids still awake squeal, the adults clink glasses and toast what they're going to do next year, the old folks cackle, the oldest ones cough skim like sounds over a lake, tinkling and clear to Charles Bandy through the crisp, frostless mountain night. The mountain doesn't know it's New Year's Eve. The war doesn't know it's New Year's Eve.
Bandy opens his palms to the kerosene lantern he brought to the barn. He washes his hands in the little heat above the vent and thinks of the GIs freezing right now in foxholes and slit trenches in France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Germany. Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes are dangling from beard-shrouded soldiers' lips right now. Surely some Tennessee tobacco is glowing over there.
The barn door slides open. Leaves in the rafters rustle their wrinkles; the barn takes on the feel of a cave coated in restless bats. This eerie sense disappears in just a moment, because it is her and no room she enters is a cave. She shuts the door. She has another lantern with her.
"What're you doing out here? Everyone's inside. It's almost time."
Bandy hears the piney woods in his wife's voice. Her accent is sugary, with rounded corners, not the serrated Appalachian tongue, not the mountain laurel. She comes from the flatlands, from Hendersonville, North Carolina. Her people farm tobacco down there too. Flue cured, where they keep a fire stoked in the barns day and night. They've got big plots of land, not the sloped slivers Bandy's tribe makes pay. The two met at Vanderbilt when he was a senior and she was a freshman. He graduated in journalism, then she got her teaching degree. They married and stayed in Nashville five more years. She taught third grade, he took photos for any rag that would buy them. Then eleven years ago he carried her up here to the mountains and everyone, kids, parents, family, farmers, fell over themselves for her. She could be mayor if there was a mayor; they have a postmaster and a sheriff, that's the extent of the government in these hills.
"You all right?" she asks.
"I'm fine, Vic."
"Well, come inside. Everyone's missing you. Your mama asked me to come get you."
"I'll be along directly."
"Charley, I'm not going to celebrate the New Year with you out here in the barn. I have spent enough time without you already." He thinks Victoria is referring to their war-time, years gouged out of the last decade, years of fear for her, and that she wants to make him sorry for it right now, again. But she steps up close and says something different, sweetly.
"You have been working way too hard since you got back. Your daddy's roof. Alvin's fence. Jane and Edgar's tractor. What about our house?"
She sets the lantern on the dirt floor. She slips her arms around his waist. "What about me?"
Bandy takes in her brown hair nestled under his nose. She's only five feet five, he's a good six-footer. She's got that teacher scent, squeaky clean, a role model for the kids, for sixteen years of marriage now. She's still cute, the cheerleader she used to be in college keeps dancing and doing splits in her eyes and smiles. Except for the difference in height, they look very much alike. Both have mousy hair, both are lean-faced with brown eyes. Perhaps that's why they took to each other with such speed when they met sixteen years ago, they recognized they were cut from the same tobacco-stained cloth. Bandy breathes her in. For a moment he can't smell the leaves in their firmament, or the war in its new year.
"I love you."
His wife squeezes him. She is happy right now, and that makes this the moment to tell her, because he must yank the happiness away from her. It's the only fair way to do it.
"I'm going back."
She does not release him, nor even flinch. Her head rests on his chest, her ear gentle against his heart. This saddens him; she knew it was coming. He hadn't ever fooled her, hadn't once in the two weeks he'd been home given her a single moment to believe he might stay.
"Haven't they gotten enough out of you?"
The "they" is Life magazine, Bandy's employer for the past eight years, since the magazine's inception in 1936. He is a staff photographer. His name is known nationwide for his byline, CHARLES BANDY, LIFE SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, for the remarkable black-and-white images he has captured of war and warriors, of both friend and foe. His exposed negatives go via military courier from the battlefield to London censors, then by wire to New York, then onto the glossy pages of Life. Just days after the pictures are taken, the hopeful and weary eyes of the home front stare into the magazine as though into a crystal ball, for it is there that they witness their sons and fathers and enemies far across the ocean, they peer through haze and exploding earth and risk. America wonders and weeps through Bandy's camera.
Bandy makes no reply to his wife's charge. She has not lessened her grip about his waist. Nor has she taken her ear from his chest, as though to make certain that he indeed has a heart, to be leaving her again.
She speaks into the wool of his sweater. There is no sadness in her voice. She is not appealing to him, not beseeching, but prosecuting a point. She thinks he is wrong to go back and will try to prove it.
"Nineteen thirty-six, the Spanish Civil War. Nineteen thirty-seven, the Sino-Japanese War. Nineteen forty, the Battle of Britain. Nineteen forty-one, Manila, Tobruk. Nineteen forty-two, Libya and Egypt. Guadalcanal."
Victoria now lifts her head from his breast. She sniffles. She has lost the struggle to stay calm in the list of his assignments and the misery of his absences. She grabs at his eyes with hers, which are unblinking and damp. The yellow lantern light creates small suns in the wet trails down her cheeks.
"Nineteen forty-three, Sicily, Messina, Salerno, Naples. Nineteen forty-four, D-Day, for God's sake, you were in the first wave. Normandy. Holland. Belgium."
Bandy weakly smiles down at her. "You've been following my career."
She is not amused and answers in a quiet voice. "I've been praying for your life, Charley."
Inside the house, only a hundred feet away, someone calls out, "All right, y'all! One minute! One minute!" Someone else squawks a noisemaker and a child shouts, "Not yet!"
At this Victoria releases her arms from around him and steps back.
"I want children. Your children. I'm not getting any younger. You get killed, what am I going to do? You think about that?"
"And? It doesn't seem to make you want to stay home."
But this time he'd come home from the war really wanting to stay. Two weeks ago the Germans were beaten. France had been liberated. Italy switched sides. The Russians were gathering along the Vistula River in eastern Poland for their final thrust to Berlin. Wehrmacht soldiers were surrendering by the tens of thousands to Eisenhower's and Montgomery's troops. The war was expected to end by Christmas, January at the latest. Odds were that Hitler would sue for peace once the end was in sight. So Bandy had figured that was it. He notified the magazine, said his goodbyes to those men and officers around him the soldiers always changed: the instinct of the war photographer to sense where the action will happen next is his greatest asset, more vital than any facility with a camera, because a bad shot of action is better than a great shot of nothing and boarded a plane west. He traveled for three days to get home. Then the morning he arrived, December 16, even while he set down his duffel and held his wife, the Germans launched a massive winter counteroffensive, with two hundred fifty thousand men, thousands of tanks and artillery pieces. The assault was staged opposed to all logic. It was a last roll of the dice against the American and British forces in Belgium and Luxembourg, launched through the thick Ardennes forests, the biggest battle yet on the Western Front. Hitler attempted to drive a wedge into the Allied forces, recapture the port of Antwerp and reclaim the initiative. In the first few days he succeeded, stabbing west to a point just shy of the Meuse River on the French border, forging a pocket that became the name of the battle, the Bulge. Eisenhower responded to the German attack by mobilizing six hundred thousand men. The American airborne commander of the surrounded town of Bastogne, when asked to surrender, replied to the Germans, "Nuts." The Battle of the Bulge will be won in the next few weeks, Hitler turned back. But the war has been prolonged by who knows how long. Now it looks like it won't end until somebody either the Reds or the Western Allies assaults and takes Berlin. Hitler has screwed Bandy's plans.
Bandy says to his wife, motionless in his arms, "I'll be back."
Victoria takes this like a slap. She even starts to bring up her hands to fend off the words. She bites her lip and turns away.
"In a box, Charley?"
Inside the house, Bandy's dad calls out, "All right! Here comes 1945, the best damn year of 'em all! Right?"
Answering shouts agree, the best damn year of 'em all.
The family counts down from ten, nine, eight, seven ... Noisemakers start to blow seconds early.
Bandy stands four feet from his wife. One of her tears dots the dirt floor. They stand apart, separated by an ocean.
January 1, 1945, midnight
All the bells are ringing.
Even this far outside Moscow, twenty kilometers, the Marshal can hear them. He leans his nose close to a chilly windowpane. He has pushed aside the thick blackout curtain to gaze into a moonless, overcast dark. The glow of Moscow is missing from the horizon, shrouded for safety's sake. All the other structures nearby in his compound are likewise extinguished. The night has total victory outside, save for the lanterns of his security guards strolling the crunchy ground around the dacha. The distant din of the bells is incongruous, joy and hope playing against such blackness. This is the Russian way, he thinks. Beauty meshed in tragedy, never one without the other for us.
Along the same wall where the Marshal stands, one of his generals thrusts aside the curtain of another window. This general turns to the others in the giant banquet room Politburo members, military men and their wives, all pomaded and powdered, brass and lace. The general calls out to them, "Hear the bells!"
The Marshal does not swivel around but keeps his back to their cheers for the new year, the kisses of men given first to their comrades on both cheeks, then to the women on lips, the bear hugs and handshakes. He turns only to the general near him looking out into the same inky Russia.
He says, "Close the curtain, Comrade General."
The general hesitates only for a moment, in surprise. He lets go the curtain and it falls into place.
"Yes, Comrade Stalin," he says, inclining his forehead. "My apologies, Comrade."
The general makes his escape back to the arms of his fellows and women. Stalin continues to stare through the glass at nothing.
He looks west, toward Poland. There he has his two generals, Zhukov and Koniev, his two studded fists, poised on the Vistula with a million men and ten thousand artillery pieces and twenty thousand tanks. Before the month is out, he will brandish those fists and pound the Germans first out of Poland, then into pulp in their own homeland. He will not unfurl those fists, will not wipe the blood off them, until he wipes them on Hitler's shirt in Berlin.