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Botanical Nomenclature

by Kate Finegan

We are the women who borrow our ladies’ periodicals, who listen when they gather their sewing circles, when one woman in the group reads aloud from a book of poems footnoted with facts that we, good women—like our ladies, the housekeeper next door, the cook down the lane—shouldn’t know and shouldn’t discuss. We are the hidden readers, engaging with print we haven’t purchased. We women share our knowledge, of births and babies, petticoats and powders, madeleines, meringues, and mincemeat pies, but also of stamens and pistils, those husbands and wives, and their union, their coming together—their marriage bed. We garden, run our thumbs over the petals soft like the skin of our wrists, whisper words we’ve learned through listening or through loans, alone. When we were children, we lifted our dresses to compare folds and sprouting hairs and shades of pink. Now we sit with our pencils, coloring shades and folds of peony and dahlia, daffodil and iris. Hydrangeas, honeysuckles. Pansies, poinsettias. You tell us our study threatens propriety, that Linnaeus isn’t suitable for the gentler sex. When we give birth, you are forbidden from entering the room. We, too, are capable of barring doors. You tell us you want us, that we are your flowers, your roses, but you make love to us without a fire burning, candles extinguished, groping in the dark. When we ask you to gaze into our folds, our shades of pink and red, magenta and maroon, you blush hibiscus. We tuck our natural philosophy into the pages of respectable periodicals, slip taxonomy into the footnotes of poems, fill letters with Linnaeus and call them epistolary novels. We pass this knowledge, woman to woman to woman. You have your microscopes; we have our magazines, our closed doors, our secrets locked inside our hearts, inside our minds overflowing behind the only set of lips you’ll deign to kiss. Observe our nature: we, like pollen, can rise.

Author's Note

Ever since I read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, I have been fascinated by the history of botany as a space for women's intellectual empowerment. So when The Newberry Library released a podcast episode entitled "Let's Talk About Plant Sex," I downloaded it immediately and listened to it on my way to work. This story is the outcome of that morning commute.

Kate Finegan has a short story chapbook out with Penrose Press. Her work has won contests with Thresholds, Phoebe Journal, Midwestern Gothic, and The Fiddlehead; been runner-up for The Puritan's Thomas Morton Memorial Prize; and been shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize.