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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #9

Henry Peach Robinson. British, 1830 – 1901. She Never Told her Love

1857. Albumen print from a wet collodion negative. Photograph. 17.8 x 21.8 cm (7 x 8 9/16 in.)

Paul Mellon Fund. Open Access. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

She Never Told Her Love

She held it inside like the pit of some fruit, no chance to ripen. At a lunch party, Helen met Miranda. While they spoke of the fine day, the hostess’s lovely home, Helen sensed disinterest in the delicate woman, tired as she of pretending.

Do you garden? she asked Miranda, whose light brown hair held by silver filigree combs was sun-lit in streaks.

Miranda’s wary or indifferent face shifted to half-smile. Oh yes, I love flowers, trees, growing things. She glanced away, and Helen felt a seed sprout inside her.

Closing French doors, they entered a maze-like garden. Miranda identified primrose, foxglove, hollyhocks; Helen thought of painting them. They touched hands as they both fingered a rose’s petals. Miranda, young widow. Helen, spinster by all accounts.

Their love affair lasted until Miranda met James. Helen wept, wrote letters, pleaded, but never told Miranda she loved her. Whenever she had tried to speak the feelings that bloomed and swelled her heart to ripe plum, Miranda pressed a slender finger to her lips, stopped her like Cook’s cork in the wine bottle she drew from to deepen fine French sauces.

Child Helen had watched Cook, asked why she added rosemary or thyme, wanting to make food to bloom contentment in other bellies. Cooking is beneath your station, and unseemly, Mother said. Hadn’t Helen always felt unseemly? Misaligned with family, society. Her life root-bound. Art was easy. Mother could boast about Helen’s paintings of the family’s too-tame gardens, display them around the large, life-empty house.

Helen didn’t sense the cough was more than a chill from rain-drenched walks, not until it rattled her ribs like locomotives propagating across the country. She coughed, ached, but thought it fitting her birdcage chest should shake and pain. Her heart was broken.

While Helen grew unable to rise from bed, Miranda, weeks’ married, became pregnant. Helen had not told her first and only love; not even when the doctor gave no reason for hope; not as she lost energy to paint or cough or eat favorite meals Cook made and brought her.

Mother wept. Helen felt relief that she would never again feel sun-burned passion. As she leaned in to the letting go of desires, her body grafted to the sick tree that could not sustain her, Helen stored away in her soul’s pantry the fruited love that had died on a branch inside, unspoken.

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