The last leaf

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

As dawn breaks tentatively and one can begin to identify the world outside the bedroom doors, the late sleeper already has choices to make: Go back to sleep? Burrow into the pillows and take a chance on getting enough air to live? Watch the trees begin to take individual forms?

On this morning, I was just about to burrow when I saw…something…a bird?...holding onto a twig on the trunk of an oak a dozen or so feet from the deck. I think it just flew in, but I’m not sure. It moves a little, although the trees are moving too, and now, as the light becomes strong enough to differentiate color, I notice it is definitely red.

I doze. When I wake up again, the first thing I do is to look for the red bird, not really expecting to see it again. The wind is stronger now, and what few leaves are left are surrendering their grasp on life and dropping to oblivion.

My visitor is still there. It’s a leaf. A bright red leaf, big as a cardinal, trembling, but still gripping the bark of the tree.

It is now four days since I first noticed the leaf, and it is still there. Plucky little fellow. Did he sleep? What do leaves do on a breezy near-winter night? I look for it every morning and I think, “Yes, some things need not be hurried. Take your time.”

As if in response, my brain began rummaging for a memory. Ah, yes, here it is: “The Last Leaf,” an O. Henry short story. I know exactly where the old book is.

Two starving artists share rooms behind their Greenwich Village studio. Johnsy has fallen to pneumonia and, while gazing out the window, is preparing to die. Her friend Sue is desperate to save her, and chides her for not making more of an effort to live.

One cold rainy day, Sue hears murmured words and slips into Johnsy’s bedroom to listen. “Twelve,” she hears, then “eleven,” and later, “nine,” “eight, seven.”

“Seven what, dear?” Sue asks Johnsy gently.

“Leaves on the ivy vine,” replies Johnsy. “When the last leaf falls, I too will turn loose of life and drift to earth.”

Sue is horrified, but all she can do is beg Johnsy to keep the window shade pulled down and perhaps sleep a little.

Beside herself with grief and apprehension, Sue turns to an old friend who lives in an apartment below her rooms. A boozy old artist named Behrman, who was always just moments from starting his masterpiece – for 20 years – listens to Sue’s outpouring and joins her in lamenting that the innocent die young while evil men survive. He comes upstairs with Sue, and finding Johnsy asleep, they slip into an adjacent room which also has a window on that side of the building. There was the ivy leaf, clinging to the crumbling brick wall next door, trembling a little in the growing wind.

No other leaves are visible. This is the last leaf.

When Johnsy awakes, she asks Sue to raise the blind. Despite the deteriorating weather, the tough little leaf is still there. “Then it will be today,” Johnsy asserts, sliding further down into the bed.

The doctor stops by later in the day and upgrades Johnsy’s condition from one chance in 10 to 50-50. Sue shows him the last leaf and tells him about Johnsy’s belief.

Anything that will encourage her is good, the doctor says skeptically. People take all sorts of notions when they are near death. Why, he had just left Herr Behrman’s apartment. The old man had been found by the janitor, soaking wet and delirious in his room. When the doctor came, he told the family it was pneumonia too, and hopeless. They sent him to hospital to be comfortable until he died.

To all concerned it was a mystery. Where had he been on that awful night? As Johnsy ate a little meal, Sue told Johnsy of their old friend’s death, and gradually the questions were answered. They had found his lantern, still lit, and a ladder that had been pulled out of its place. There were brushes scattered about, a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it.

“And look out the window, dear, at the last leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

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