See it way up there? That little golden apple. The late afternoon sunlight turned part of the tree trunk golden and highlighted the little apple.
I didn’t know I had ANY apples this year, not until all the leaves fell away. It was a bad year for apples and all the other fruit. There was an early, warm spring which brought out the blossoms on our trees, but followed by a hard frost and cold spell for many days which killed the blossoms, ending the formation of any fruit.
There’s something sad and brave about that one lone apple. Unknown, unappreciated, it did its thing. Of what use is it to hold out to the very end, the very end of your life?
Well, do you remember the short story called The Last Leaf? It was written by O Henry, an important writer in American literature. I call him important because his writings recorded and carried forth for us the common folk wisdom of our nation’s past, and he did it with wry humor and irony. I’m grateful to my teachers in two different grade levels, two different states, for making us study O. Henry’s wise and enjoyable short stories.
If you’ve never heard of him, see my last post about the other kind of cliff, and see where you fit in.
The Last Leaf is a sentimental very short story about a dying young woman, cared for by her friend during a serious illness. Pneumonia, I think, in the days when there was no antibiotics. She had lost interest in her art work. She was sick, weak, and tired of trying to hold on, and she believed the doctor had given up on her. Her bed was near a window which gave her a view of the garden in the late autumn. And she could just see a certain vine, which was once young and healthy as she had been, but was now losing its leaves, fading, and dying.
Here is a (public domain) conversation between Johnsy, the sick young woman, and her dear friend Sue.:
The cold breath of autumn had stricken its leaves from the vine until its
skeleton branches clung, almost bare, to the crumbling bricks.
“What is it, dear?” asked Sue.
“Six,” said Johnsy, in almost a whisper. “They’re falling faster
now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head
ache to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There
are only five left now.”
“Five what, dear. Tell your Sudie.”
“Leaves. On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go, too.
I’ve known that for three days. Didn’t the doctor tell you?”
“Oh, I never heard of such nonsense,” complained Sue, with
magnificent scorn. “What have old ivy leaves to do with your getting
The weather outside is cold, windy, rainy, and dreary. As the leaves fall Johnsy gets weaker. Sue, also trying to make a living as an artist, visited with an aging, failed artist living in their apartment building. She used him for a model for her work, as she made conversation and told him about her friend. He derided her weakness and fanciful ideas.
As it happens, Johnsy hangs on through the night, her body getting a little stronger, through the next day or so, and she begins to wonder that the leaf has clung to the vine through all the bad weather. Youth, nature, life, and increasing health begins to win.
“I’ve been a bad girl, Sudie,” said Johnsy. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how wicked I was. It is a sin to want to die. You may bring me a little broth now, and some milk with a little port in it, and — no; bring me a hand-mirror first, and then pack some pillows about me, and I will sit up and watch you cook.”
The last leaf hanging on had given her the time to enable her strength to return. Johnsy does get better, and the doctor confirms her health:
The next day the doctor said to Sue: “She’s out of danger. You’ve won. Nutrition and care now–that’s all.”
But the doctor had another patient to tend to. It was the old artist who had caught pneumonia. He had been found that night, a little while ago, collapsed in the cold, windy, rainy weather. On the day he died, Sue came to tell her friend the whole story:
His shoes and clothing were wet through and icy cold. They couldn’t imagine where he had been on such a dreadful night. And then they found a lantern, still lighted, and a ladder that had been dragged from its place, and some scattered brushes, and a palette with green and yellow colors mixed on it, and — look out the window, dear, at the last ivy 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.”
The whole story is online; and it’s probably in your American Lit. books. I haven’t told it as well as O. Henry, but I’ve always remembered all the thoughts and emotions and the lessons of hanging on, devotion, self-sacrificing acts — and the big question: what makes life so worth living?
It’s still up there. Presenting its quiet little testimony, even if no one notices.