"Last leaf won't fall," she muttered to herself as she leaned into the oven to extract the browning pie. She was wearing the same shirt she had been for 3 years, 11 months and 14 days - but time was turning it into another shirt. The black had turned charcoal and the lace-trimmed collar was stretched out. The once tight fabric now hung in heavy folds on her boney body. She didn't notice. Her brown eyes blinked rapidly and her lips moved furiously but no sound came forth. She placed the pie in the kitchen sink while staring out the window at the lonely maple tree, planted the year the home was built in the small clearing that the house had invaded some fifteen years ago. They had built the house as a safe place to escape to.
Ann had been married to her husband Nigel for three years when Nadie was born. The couple raised her in a cozy Seattle apartment until 9 years, 3 months and 28 days ago.
Nadie was five and had been sick for a week. Nothing serious, just a fever and the sniffles. They believed that it was nothing a few days rest from school and some over the counter medicine couldn't handle. That's what they had thought until Nadie's scream pierced the early morning silence on a frigid day in February. The scream woke the sleeping couple. Nigel jumped out of bed and was in Nadie's room within seconds. Nadie was everything to Nigel. He had grown up with all brothers and was both fascinated and confused by her from the moment she was born. He loved Ann too, but his love and need to protect his fragile daughter overpowered his feelings for Ann.
Nadie was screaming that she couldn't see. She was afraid of the dark but couldn't get away from it. She scratched at her eyelids but couldn't get them to open. She said her eyes hurt and that they wouldn't open up. Ann thought it was just pink eye so she instructed Nigel to soak a wash cloth in hot water and to bring it to her to press over Nadie's eyes in order to dissolve the crust that had apparently sealed them shut.
After removing the steaming towel, Ann told her to open her eyes. Her eyelids slowly separated and she stared straight ahead.
"I can't," she said.
"Don't be silly, honey. You're better now." Nigel bent down and kissed her on the forehead.
"Daddy, I can't open."
"Sweetie your eyes are already open." Ann looked at her staring above his head and her heart began to quicken.
"Daddy, is the light on?"
"… Yes dear."
"Then why can't I see you?" She began to frantically scratch at her eyes again. Ann had to hold her arms down as she cradled her in her lap. Her little body shook violently with fear as Nigel called 911.
The doctors said that she had an infection and that it had made its way into her optic nerve. She was blind and would live in darkness for the rest of her life.
Nigel withdrew from Ann. He spent every possible minute with Nadie, wanting to take her pain and give her his sight - the fact that he couldn't was killing him.
6 years, 2 months and 13 days ago, Nadie sat herself at the kitchen table after playing outside with the neighbor kids as Ann washed dishes.
"Mommy, do little kids make fun of big kids?" she asked Ann.
"I don't know, I suppose they might," she responded. "Why?"
"Well I'm in second grade and the third-graders make fun of me. Which is okay because I'm smaller than them. But I don't want to be a third-grader next year and be made fun of by the second-graders. I don't want to do it all over again."
Ann turned from the sink with heavy shoulders and gathered Nadie in her arms.
"I will make sure that doesn't happen." Nadie could not see Ann's swelling red eyes looking into her empty ones.
Nigel and Ann had a house built deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina within six months. They moved out there immediately after it was finished. Nadie would be home-schooled and hidden far from the harsh judging eyes of others.
last leaf won't fall
The handwriting was spidery and desperate. On the old newspapers. On the table. On the cabinet doors. On the sheets. On the planks under her bed. On the walls- and when the walls were full she tore through the sheetrock and wrote on the wooden support beams. On the shower curtain. On the grout of the tiled kitchen. On the cellar stairs. On the inside of the lamp shades. She wrote on the windows and when the windows were filled she broke them, and wrote on all the fragmented pieces; she cut her hands on the shards, and began writing with her body's crimson ink. The chilled wind flowed through the window spaces over graffitied sills. She couldn't catch the wind though - it slid through her ink-stained fingers.
last leaf won't fall
last leaf won't fall
She wrote on the back of all the photos - in every album. But never on the front. No, no. Never over their faces. He would be mad if he saw that. Yes, yes sir, he would be mad.
It was 7 years, 2 months and 3 days ago on a crisp autumn afternoon. Ann was baking a rhubarb pie in the kitchen when Nadie asked her if all of the leaves had fallen yet.
"Yep, the very last leaf fell last night and your father and I raked them into a big pile for you this morning." Ann untied her apron. The timer said the pie would be done in two minutes.
"Will you jump in them with me?" Nadie asked, her sightless head cocked toward the door.
"Of course! It's my favorite part of fall. You go out now, I'll watch from the window and when the pie is done I'll join you."
Nadie smiled and went outside to play.
Two minutes. Ann had just enough time to change out of her nice black lace top that she had worn into town that morning and into some ratty play clothes. She was in her bedroom, pulling her long-sleeved cotton shirt over her head when she heard Nadie scream. Ann rushed out of her house and into the backyard.
Nadie was lying on her stomach with what looked like a small red snake stretched across her back. Ann couldn't figure out what was going on. They had no red snakes in this part of the mountain. How could it have gotten on her back? And why was Nadie just lying there in that puddle of dark mud, not moving, and making only faint whimpering sounds?
Then she saw the wooden handle of the pitchfork.
She had forgotten to put it back in the shed last night, and Nadie had no way of knowing it was there. The red snake was not a snake at all, but blood - soaking into the dirt, turning it to a thick mud. Ann screamed and ran for the phone. She returned, franticly yelling to the operator, but it was useless. Nadie stared silently ahead with her sightless and lifeless eyes seeing nothing but darkness.
Somewhere in the kitchen the timer beeped.
Nigel blamed her. She should have been watching her more closely. She should have been there. She should have put the goddamn pitchfork away in the shed.
She agreed with all of his accusations.
Ann stayed in the house.
last leaf won't fall
She wrote with pen and pencil and paint and mud and marker. She wrote with anything that would write and on any surface she could reach. She had been writing for 3 years, 11 months and 14 days.
She blinked impatiently out at the maple tree. It had retained just one leaf for the last 3 years. Never letting it fall.
Until this year. This year it dropped. It floated lazily from the branch and landed with a heavy thud on the ground.
"Last leaf fell. Last leaf fell. Last leaf fell." She rapidly shook her head back and forth as she drummed her blistered fingers along the edge of the counter. Her black lace shirt drooped off her shoulders. She turned the faucet on over her still steaming pie and skipped to the shed. She rummaged through the rusty tools until she found the old axe. She dragged it out of the shed and dropped it in front of the bare maple tree.
She knelt down on her hands and knees and pressed her ear into the dirt to listen for them.
"Last leaf fell. Last leaf fell. Last leaf fell. Now they come back. Last leaf fell."
She stood up, satisfied, and swung the axe into the maple's trunk. She swung until her fragile arms ached, but kept swinging until the tree groaned and with a final high-pitched cry crashed down to the earth.
She dropped the axe and sat cross-legged by the fallen tree, waiting for Nadie and Nigel to come back.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Shannon Hennessey. All rights reserved.