She was sole heiress to the more than considerable assets of her thrifty immigrant parents. Her mother had died in labor and Gertrudis was sent to boarding school in the city. During one of her summer stays in the town she married Antonio Martí, a young man who worked in her father’s hardware store. Antonio was a sensation with all the town’s girls; his green eyes and dazzling smile sent their young hearts fluttering. An accidental brushing of young bodies when Antonio was looking for nails on the other side of the store counter, followed by a look, then a smile, set off the events that led to Gertrudis’ announcement to her father of her irrevocable decision to either marry Antonio, or become a nun. Her father’s strong desire for a male heir for the family business outweighed his doubts about Antonio’s suitability as a son-in-law. The normally thrifty businessman opened his purse strings wide and the wedding feast was the grandest in town memory. This excess, combined with the abundant food and drink, had a lethal effect on him and within a week he died on the store counter while snipping a spool of wire.
The deceased’s fears were realized when, within a few months of the wedding, Antonio began to default more than expected on his conjugal duties. A caring soul sent Gertrudis a note telling her that her husband and a gorgeous `mulata´ widow were meeting at nightfall in the storage hut her father built on the beach. That same evening Gertrudis confirmed the terrible truth by squinting through the poorly nailed planks of the hut. After considering various solutions which included different combinations of murder and suicide, she decided to barricade herself behind the door of the house. When Antonio tried to enter, Gertrudis told him from the balcony that, as far as she was concerned, he had died and that he was never again to approach her. Antonio denied everything, begged for forgiveness, fixed his green eyes on her, even threatened her, all without effect. For several weeks his assaults were relentless, but Gertrudis boarded up the windows and doors so tightly that they withstood his attacks. As well, the dead father had inserted a clause in his will to ensure that Gertrudis was sole heir to the property.
Antonio and his `mulata´ left the island and years later, upon finding her with another man in a motel in Miami, he killed her, then himself. Gertrudis, feeling apprehensive and ashamed, never left her house. The large house that she inherited from her parents had a lovely interior garden with palm trees which made her incarceration more bearable. If she needed anything from the outside world, she communicated from the second story balcony with the many errand boys in town. Some family members rented the hardware store and paid the rent punctually. After a few years, she hired Benigna, a humble, taciturn woman whom she had played with when they were children.
Only a select group of friends was permitted into the fortress. A self-condemned prisoner of her own house, Gertrudis’ years were consumed by domestic labors, the piano, games of solitaire and never-ending bridge matches with her guests. This isolation caused her to regress to her childhood and to rescue her dolls from the trunk where they had retreated upon Antonio’s arrival. Her other pastime was tabloid magazines. Reading about the grand balls and romances of European royalty lifted her from the monotony of her days. Princess Diana, with her innocent simplicity, was by far her favorite. She carefully studied her clothes and gestures in the color pictures. She had even collected tea sets decorated with the faces of the royal family, and porcelain figurines of the princess and Charles. But the jewel of her collection was, without doubt, the life size doll. In spite of the astronomical price, she had not hesitated to mail-order the reproduction of the princess of her dreams.
When the enormous box arrived at the post office after several months, the mailman delivered his cargo on the cart used by the local parish to display the saints in Easter processions. A delegation of neighbors escorted the mailman to the house. Benigna opened the door while Gertrudis nervously watched on from behind the curtains of the balcony. Following Gertrudis’ instructions, Benigna made him place the box just inside the doorway, then she closed the door, much to the disappointment of the curious entourage. The two women pried the nails from the lid and nervously unpacked the doll, who was even more life-like than the advertisement claimed. Her pallid skin corresponded exactly to a member of European royalty, as did her short, elegant hair style and crystal eyes that seemed to follow them around the room.
The doll’s wedding dress required some adjusting by Gertrudis as the journey had caused slight damage to the delicate material. While the dress was being repaired, Gertrudis dressed the doll in one of her best housecoats. Under the wedding dress, the doll wore silk underwear fit for a royal wedding night, risqué fantasies of scarlet red that made her think of the more decent undergarments she had used. Inspired by the styles she had seen the princess wearing in the magazines, Gertrudis would design different outfits for the doll: an elegant suit with a short, dark jacket for informal receptions, an off the shoulder evening dress for balls and gala dinners, and a comfortable après-ski jump suit, too warm for the island.
In the afternoons Gertrudis and Benigna would sit the doll in a lawn chair under the palm trees. Doña Gertrudis would make Benigna wear a cap and apron while she served tea with a silver tea set. Later, when Benigna had gone inside the house, Gertrudis would open a magazine and read to the doll about all her royal adventures: `The Princess of Wales travels to India where she is guest of honor for a group of local dancers´, or `The princess, wearing an elegant suit from the Dior collection, visits the children's hospital´. She also praised the new hair styles or criticized the daring cleavage she displayed at the last reception, she advised the princess not to put too much trust in her indiscreet sister-in-law, or she informed her of the scandals committed by that other princess, far too ordinary to be compared with her. They could spend hours in pleasant conversation, disturbed only by the silent arrival of Benigna as she cleared away the tea cups or who silently took her place at a respectful distance.
Much to the frustration of Gertrudis’ friends’ interest in seeing the doll, Gertrudis would only allow them to peek at her from a distance. Under the persistence of her guests to see the doll, Gertrudis was becoming more and more protective of her intimate relationship and gradually, under the pretext of imaginary headaches, the afternoon bridge matches became a thing of the past. In the town curiosity for the doll had grown proportionally and fantastic stories were circulating: the doll’s chest moved up and down as she breathed, the doll could nod her head yes or no, and other even more outrageous tales. Because of Benigna’s indiscretion, the doll’s luxurious red underwear became a conversation piece. This caused the men at the local community club to fantasize during their meetings and to tell each other of improbable adventures set in Paris. Some wives even mail-ordered lingerie that could compete with the doll’s.
It was a terrible blow to Gertrudis and the doll when they learned of Prince Charles’ infidelity. `The other,´ as Gertrudis referred to Charles’ lover, could not be compared with Diana, who was finer, younger, a higher class of person. Gertrudis advised the doll to confront this disgrace with dignity, and scolded her gently when the paparazzi caught her on exotic beaches with handsome, alleged lovers. The day Diana’s divorce was made public, Gertrudis and the doll, hand in hand, silently cried under the palm trees until night fell.
But a more terrible blow was yet to come. Benigna was the first to know, she heard it while shopping in the plaza: Princess Diana had been killed in a car accident in Paris. When at last the first magazines arrived with photographs of the accident, Gertrudis went to the garden to show them to the doll. But something had changed: she did not pay attention to Gertrudis’ words, her eyes did not shine with rage or victory like before, they only stared blankly, like balls of glass. It was evident that she was dead. Gertrudis decided to lie her in her bed and asked Benigna not to spend anymore nights at the house. On Gertrudis’ behalf, Benigna consulted with the parish to see if it would be possible to have the doll buried in the family tomb. The request was not so out of line as Doña Gertrudis’ family had donated a great deal of money for the construction of the church, and she had personally paid for the roof repairs. The priest himself went to Doña Gertrudis’ house to try to dissuade her from such an outrageous idea. He ended the meeting by emphatically refusing her request, all the while aware that he had cut the parish off from any future donations.
The impasse carried on for several months, with the doll deposited in bed while Doña Gertrudis looked for a place where she could give her a Christian burial. She knew she could not compete with the lavish funeral that had taken place in London, but there were certain minimum requirements that had to be met.
In February the final hope of properly burying the doll was lost. All the parishes in the area had aligned themselves against the request. A commission from the municipality came to ask Gertrudis to abandon her absurd plan, and some of her relatives together with some of her husband’s family, tried to have her declared mentally incompetent. Gertrudis saw very clearly what was happening and barricaded herself deeper yet in her house. She was so suspicious of everyone that she even threw Benigna, with her 25 years of service, out on the street, accusing her of a non-existent robbery.
During the week of carnival, Gertrudis got the idea of how to foil her enemies’ plans for her and the doll, to avoid the public humiliation of being taken out of the house in her wedding dress and having to pass in front of the lustful eyes of her neighbors. On Tuesday night, during carnival, she put her plan into action. She carried the doll to the garage where a huge, 12 cylinder De Soto had been languishing since her father had presented it to her as a wedding gift. Recently Benigna, claiming that she could drive to the neighboring town to get a jump on the unbearably slow distribution of the tabloids, had resuscitated the old car with considerable help from the local mechanic. Gertrudis discarded the spacious trunk as too undignified and sat the doll in the front seat. Then she decorated the car with flowers hastily yanked out of the garden. She calmly dressed herself in the tuxedo her husband wore to their wedding, and carefully applied a fake moustache to her upper lip.
In the darkness of the garage, she sat at the steering wheel, and hugged the doll. She waited until midnight, then started the motor. The doors banged wide open under the thrust of the car. The enormous De Soto rocked its way out of the garage, and some of the garlands were stripped off by the garage doors. In spite of the years, Gertrudis had not forgotten her father’s driving lessons. She was convinced that she would also remember the streets of the town, but new houses had risen everywhere and brick buildings occupied the fields she had played in. Disoriented, she had to turn around several times to avoid the crowd of Pierrots and Harlequins, demons and skeletons, transvestites and half naked women. The obsolete automobile covered with garlands was not noticed until a child, dressed as a Cherub, pointed an accusing finger and shouted: `There goes the doll!´ In no time the car was surrounded by a monstrous pack. Their hands tried to touch the doll who smiled at the crowds with distant indifference. Gertrudis stepped on the gas pedal and two harlequins' faces crashed painfully on the windshield, but the powerful De Soto spit them onto the pavement. Followed by a grotesque parade of bearded women, breasted men, and faceless masks, Gertrudis drove the car up the lighthouse hill.
No one knows for sure whether it was Gertrudis’ lack of experience behind the wheel, the new design of the road, the decrepit car, or simply bad luck that caused the car to nosedive off the first curve and drop six hundred feet onto the rocks. Nothing could be done until the following day. The tide had dragged the contents of the car out to sea and neither Gertrudis nor the doll were to be found. Some weeks later, a frightened tourist reported that a corpse had been washed up on the beach. When the forensic examiner arrived, he discovered the doll, with her soggy wedding dress tattered and torn, her hands and face gouged by the rocks. In the confusion of the moment, the doll was transported to the morgue at the cemetery and dumped in a corner where she turned more yellow with each passing month. Doña Gertrudis’ body was never found and the impatient heirs finally decided to give her a solemn funeral, corpore insepulto. The undertaker had come to hate the glassy gaze of the ravaged doll and, at the last moment, he threw her into Gertrudis’ empty coffin. The pallbearers noticed that the coffin was heavy, but they didn’t say anything.
Enrique Fernández, España, Canadá, Estados Unidos © 1998
Translation by Lynne Fernandez © 2016