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.