The Lasting Leaf

The leaves had no autumn to shake them off. Yet, I began counting – ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five, and I’d pause. I liked the number five. It was akin to an S and I’d draw it with my toes on the ground. S/5. The leaves were all there on branches as they swayed in the gentle breeze.

The sun glared at them all day and at night it was too late to even see the tree. The counting became a pastime. It wasn’t ivy leaves, but leaves from a drumstick tree that was in the rear portion of our building. There was a balcony there and I’d set up my card paper and paints and brushes and daub colour recklessly. Or I’d sketch. It was easy to sketch leaves, slashes and slanting with thick veins.

I did not know whether I was Johnsy, who had lost all hope of living, or Sue who lived to make a living and hoped that Johnsy would live and paint the Bay of Naples, or the doctor who calculated her chances of living beyond science.

O Henry’s The Last Leaf had taken root in my thoughts. As a rather quiet and introspective girl, counting leaves was pretty much the sort of thing I’d do as much as I would watch a seed grow and be surprised as a bud would shoot up and slowly open out. This was supposed to happen and still it filled me with wonder. Each time.

The leaves were not falling, though. I lived in a place where trees fell in strong winds or during furious rains. Leaves, even after that fall, remained stuck to the dead trees. Slowly, I realised I was that tree because of my resolve to just watch it and persevere to see a story I had read come alive.

I knew the end, the end where the failed artist Behrman dies of the same illness as Johnsy – pneumonia (and, oh, I was so smart I knew how to spell the word) – within two days. Behrman who had stayed up late in the storm, brought out a ladder, climbed high and, just where the vine curled on the wall, had painted a leaf, green with a yellowish tinge. Johnsy, seeing that the leaf had not fallen got renewed hope that life did not want to give up on her, so she did not give up on it. Behrman who thought the idea of someone counting leaves and imagining that they would die when the last one would fall had been confounded, “Is dere people in de world mit der foolishness to die because leafs dey drop off from a vine?” He had put aside his bewilderment and given his everything to paint that life-giving leaf.

A failed artist he was, but he produced a masterpiece.

And I? The tree became a friend and I always paused at five…I knew the leaves would not fall. Drumsticks hung down from it and sometimes we picked the ones that lay on the ground. Those used in the curry would take me back to the leaves, leaves brightened by the sun and invisible at night. Painted in my mind.


  1. I remember reading The Last Leaf as a kid and I remember being stunned by it's awesomeness.

  2. I have always considered this story as too navel gazing. If the chap had bothered to step out and make a few other people happy, maybe tell a wonky tale to the lonesome kid next door or something of that sort, he needn't have stuck around staring at a painted leaf.

    There is nothing in this universe that is worth this one chance we have at smelling the crap as was walk alongside a polluted river or smelling a beautiful flower or staring at the night sky in the middle of a rural field.

  3. Al:

    If it's a good navel, then the gazing is quite fruitful activity.

    However, some corrections in order. Johnsie is a woman who Sue meets and they share the digs because of similar interest. At the time it was written, pneumonia was a big illness. It can cause deliriousness. There is also a genre of literature that does talk about melancholia...and trust me, it is real. And she was NOT staring at a painted leaf...they were real leaves that were falling and the final one did not fall because it was painted. She did not know about it but it gave her hope. It means one can construct hope.

    I am sure she smelled the crap too. Prolly did not have a choice.

    But, your opinion is yours. Whatever floats your boat in whichever polluted river :) Make mine the Ganges...


    My recollection was also of childhood, and I still think it has something to it.

  4. FV, Sorry if I mangled your favourite story :-) but I find depressing tales like that very....how to put it...depressing. But yes, I will shut up now.

  5. I was in fact thinking of the Ganges when I was talking about smelly rivers :-)

  6. Not at all, I am quite open like that. In fact, you have me something more to keep count of - rotting flowers in the river :)


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