“in any century,” said she. march 2017.
In the year 1881, she fell in love.
There was the aroma of perfume on the Miss’s alabaster neck, and dust, thinly veiled over the mantelpiece with photographs of the Miss’s passed mother and father holding a baby girl with dark hair and sleeping eyes. The Miss had long ago tired of cleaning, leaving her home mostly in a scattered mess with dust and cobwebs in the corner, as if she invited spiders into her home when in truth she simply did not mind. She dressed more comfortably than any woman of the era should, almost promiscuously with a dress that fell just above her ankles.
Her bare feet danced across hardwood, skidding as she turned from her position facing the massive sitting room to retrieve the hissing kettle. Her teacups clattered against their saucers as she set them down beside a plate of biscuits, then adjusted the tablecloth evenly. She fumbled her fingers around the strings of her dress, tightening them to accentuate her waist, and caught sight of herself in the mirror. Although her hips were rather skinny and her face rather plain, with thin–unkissable, she thought to herself–lips, there was still something attractive about the darkness of her curled hair, kept always in a bob on the back of her head with two locks of hair hanging beside either cheek to frame her soft skin.
Her knuckles brushed her cheek, her lips parting slightly, and her breath hitched at the sound of brass knocking against wood. A small smile graced her lips as nerves fluttered in her stomach, her heart managing to skip a beat with the rhythm of the three raps on her door.
Bracing her heart, Jane clutched her golden locket and spun her finger around it, once for calmness and twice for luck, before she treaded across the wooden floors of her childhood home.
Behind the door stood a woman of seraphic beauty, equipped for pursuit of hearts, and Miss Jane Arthur smiled radiantly at the angel in her doorway, reassurance that God was real in the form of a woman.
“Miss Watson, dearest!” said Jane exuberantly, her initial response thoughtless and compulsive as she flung her arms around Miss Watson’s shoulder, her body warm and her scent of sage. Such an aroma coerced Jane into lingering as she traced her fingers down Miss Watson’s bicep, down her forearm before clasping gently around her fingers. And the sound of Watson’s giggling plucked Jane’s heartstrings like a violinist would orchestrate a ballad.
The metallic cool of Miss Watson’s ring grazed Jane’s skin, a chilling reminder.
“Oh,” Jane chirped with an embarrassed smile, her eyes seeking the floor. “It isn’t Watson anymore, is it? It’s- er.”
Helen understood the confusion and recognized the transparency of Jane’s thoughts regarding her marriage but ignored it, like she tended to do with Jane’s habits. “Mrs. John Plath now,” she amended.
“Of course,” said Jane, her small smile returning to her face as she caressed the newlywed’s fingers, embracing Mrs. Plath’s with quiet intimacy. “But you must know I will always love you as Helen Watson.”
Helen quieted, her lips pursed in repressed argument, and she walked forward, her fingers looped with Jane’s for as long as possible before detachment. She looked at the highly decorated living room with wonder, staring at the high-rise ceiling with awe, slowly spinning in place to absorb as much of the wondrous palace as possible; Jane remembered thinking that she looked beautiful and belonging.
“How can you stand to live in a place so large, Jane?” inquired Helen, her blue eyes glinting in the candlelight. The room was dim, as the drapes were drawn as to not let any sunlight in and expose the dust.
“How do you mean?” Jane stood just in front of the closed door, her hands clasped in front of her stomach. She could still feel the warmth of Helen’s hand and the contrast of that sharp chill of her golden ring. Beautiful ring, though Jane could have afforded better.
“Well, it’s just- the place is beautiful, of course, but surely you have visitors.”
“No one but you.”
“Only me? Oh, Jane. I haven’t visited in ages.”
“Well, I’m not interested in many a people other than you, Helen.” Neither spoke, dwelling in glances. Jane continued, “You’re always welcome here.”
Helen collected her thoughts evidently, smiled and shook her head, chuckling in a manner more intimate than before. “Jane, you must understand that can’t be just. You have no men visiting you in this home?”
Jane chuckled, her chin lifted as she walked forward, grasping the locket around her neck in her palm, looking towards the closed window. “No, no. Couldn’t be. My life does not suit a man. Men ruin all semblance of independence a woman can have in this era–horribly repressive a man can be on a woman’s notion of her role,” Jane explained simply, catching the hesitance in Helen’s eyes before she simmers, backpedaling towards an apology at the inconsiderate nature of her comment. “Apologies.”
“It’s quite all right, Jane.” Helen’s voice was soft with delicate understanding that Jane worried was incomplete. “I know how you abhor romance.”
Jane’s heart winced in her chest. Her hand fell from the golden heart-shaped locket. “How is… married life?”
Helen’s smile broadened in obligatory happiness at the question, dipping her chin down in a quiet nod. “It’s good. I’m quite happy.”
Jane smiled. “Quite, good.”
The conversation halted with frantic attempts to seek new means for discussion. Both wished to speak, and neither had any clue of what.
Jane’s eyes sought the form of Helen’s body. “Your dress is beautiful.”
“You dearly think so?”
“Yes. Lavender has always been your color.”
The air tightened with words left unsaid before Helen took in a breath, a reminder of her presence that made Jane exhale, and Jane said, “I’m terribly sorry about the mess, I was just–” in the same moment that Helen advised, “I think you should get married.”
Both stopped; hesitance and quiet romanticism stilted in the air. Caught in a spell of breathlessness, Jane revoked her own bravery and broke her gaze from Helen, instead grazing her fingers over the fabric of the top of the loveseat she often sat in alone.
The question was soft, forbidding honesty.
“People will suspect,” whispered Helen, in a voice Jane strained to hear.
“Let them,” Jane snapped, matching Helen’s gaze with her own fiery anger that died as soon as Helen hardened. Helen’s lips pursed; Jane could see the clench of Helen’s jaw as it bulged, her dimples rounded into soft cheeks and her jaw made of steel. Jane felt it necessary to apologize but didn’t. “I don’t mind what people say. People will always suspect.”
The anger seemed to drain from Helen’s face like blood from a wound, and she looked again towards the closed windows. The dimness of the room enhanced the contours of her edgeless face, the almost invisible hairs against her skin, her glossy eyes. Jane feared that she had somehow offended her, and she approached with a veracious concern.
“Helen, I meant no harm to you, of course,” Jane said, a sad smile on her face as she braced Helen’s forearm against her palm. “I would never intend to offend you, nor would I say something if I thought it would hurt you, Mrs. Watson.”
Helen’s face expressed a solemn and quiet sadness, but she soon repressed the tears misted in her eyes in order to smile with a suddenness that stunned Miss Jane.
“Ah, well, tell me about your work, Jane!” Helen said, moving towards the kitchen where Jane had set up tea. “Would you like to be mother? It is traditional of the host to do so, my dearest, but then you never were for tradition. I’ll just pour myself a cup, shall I?”
“You don’t take sugar anymore?” Jane asked, watching the steaming tea pour into the white china Jane’s mother had left for her.
“Oh, no. Much too sweet for me now. I’ve developed a more bitter taste palette since marriage, isn’t that funny?”
“So.” Helen sat. “Tell me about your work then. Ever the place for a man, is it difficult for you?”
“I do well.”
“Better than most.”
Helen sipped at her tea and hummed before setting it down on the table in front of her, shaking her head. “You usually chatter my ear off about your cases, Jane.”
Jane had poured herself a cup of tea as well to avoid the stress of having nothing to do with her hands. “That was before. We had more time.”
“We still have time,” insisted Helen, a hopeful smile on her face that Jane for the life of her could not return.
Jane set her teacup into her saucer with a solemn clink.
Helen’s smile dwindled, her eyes looking again towards the curtains covering the windows, keeping anyone from looking in. She moved to lean forward to Jane, her voice a whisper. Her dress caught against the seat, a sliver of skin on her ankle revealed which she did not move to cover.
Jane gathered courage inside of her ribcage and asked, “Did you receive my letters?”
She glimpsed at Helen’s face, noting immediately the absence of happiness or anger or even something resembling sadness, instead neutral and distant despite the intimacy of the questions of her letters. Her lips were pursed, thinned with distaste.
Jane marinated in the silence before testing, “Helen?”
“I did.” Chilled was her voice, bristled by the reminder, and Jane’s courage tightened and weakened again into fear, a much more familiar feeling to her, but the emotion did not reach her face.
Helen spoke, with more emotion, discreet, worried. “My husband is becoming suspicious.”
Jane laughed, “Don’t worry about him, he’s a dimwit.”
Much to Jane’s surprise, Helen returned the laughter, angelic as harps at the gates of heaven, and Jane giggled too, the smile remnants on her face.
“Yes,” Helen answered, laughter still in her voice. “I kept them, of course I kept them.” And she sighed, thoughtful with wist. “I sometimes wish I could memorialize them, Jane. You write poetically without even meaning too. They’re art, truly.”
“They’re not that wonderful, Helen; you’re trying to get me to blush,” Jane dismissed, much to her own chagrin.
Helen smiled and nodded, licking her lips before giggling. “Yes, I am.”
The dips in conversation were romantic. It was so intimate to exist in silence but still perfectly understand the other. Jane ached to touch her.
“Jane,” Helen whispered, the softness in her voice bleeding. Her eyes burned with tears. “You must get married.”
“Helen, you know that I–”
“I can’t keep coming to visit you in secret. I can’t keep hiding your letters.”
Every sentence coerced Jane’s heart into another quickening beat, appearing at her temple as she grimaced in annoyance.
“We can’t keep doing this to one another, Jane.”
“Yes, I know,” Jane snapped, her heat directed towards Helen before she softened, with regret. Helen hardened with anger before deflating, her eyes now morose. They looked at each other.
“Helen,” Jane whispered, “it would kill me to marry anyone but you.”
Pain sagged in the weight underneath Helen’s eyes before tears dripped from her eyelashes to her cheeks, stroking down her skin. She smiled with breathless laughter and shook her head. “Jane, I…”
Her heart tightened in the way Helen always made it do, but she forced herself to have courage, raising herself slowly from the chair and extending her hand to her dear Watson.
Helen laughed, shaking her head, but she slipped her palm against Jane’s. Her other hand found Jane’s waist, and Jane giggled, setting her hand with ease on Helen’s shoulder. Their weight, cohesive and balanced, swayed in a slow dance, standing in place in the home that they used to share, after Jane’s parents passed and before Helen decided to marry. In the year 1881, she fell in love and felt enough for an eternity. She ached to have the same felt about her. And always, always in the back of her mind was the sensational thought that potentially Helen might love her the same.
“Helen?” Jane whispered.
“I want you to move back in.” Her chin set on Helen’s shoulder, her arm embracing her waist to hold her close. “I know it is not possible, and I know that it would make my beyond-earthly dreams come true, and thus cannot happen, but I want you to know that I want to be with you. I always wish to be with you.” By this time, words intermingled with the salty tears on her lips.
Helen sniffed, her face wet with tears as well, and she stroked her thumb over Jane’s cheek, resting it right underneath her jaw, her knuckle bent with weight against her cheek. She smiled and pursed her lips before reaching forward to kiss her. Jane fell into the depths of her lips, holding her gently but with strength, and they broke apart with happy sobs, both grasping at the other’s face and waist, giggling.
“Perhaps at another time,” Helen answered, painfully.
“Perhaps you were right, Helen,” Jane said, smiling despite the knowing, the knowing that stolen moments would be their best.
“We have time,” Jane whispered, and they embraced, their lips grazing each other with every quivering breath. Able to feel each other’s heartbeats. The dust was unable to be seen floating in the air with the curtains closed.
Jane pressed her forehead to Helen’s, and they existed together for a moment. In 1881, 1885, 1985, or any year beyond it, they would exist infinitely. With beating hearts, with secretive adrenaline, with dust and shadows and all things forbidden and weary, they would exist and burn with the world.