Jose Alcantara Almanzar

 

THE QUEEN AND HER SECRET

 

Through the narrow opening of the door that was ajar, Gina noticed the bluish eye, the arched eyebrow, the captivating eyelash, the mouth moving like a scarlet worm, articulating and modulating inaudible words. Seduced by that almost ghostly, white complexion, she stopped in front of the house where a hand now opened the door a few more centimeters, and the hidden face—without revealing itself entirely—emerged into the street’s tenuous light. Gina could not move. She seemed stuck to the sidewalk’s cracked surface. She felt attracted by the face. She imagined those green nails melting over the long, slim fingers, transformed into supple tentacles that drew her into the house. The naked shoulder, a golden bracelet on the wrist, the foot displaying an antique shoe, and around the ankle, a thin anklet with a strange brilliance that hurt Gina’s eyes forcing her to look away and fix her gaze on another part of the figure that was silhouetted in the narrow opening of the door.

The mouth would not stop moving, but Gina could not hear or make out the words clearly. Only muffled sounds, strange suggestions, whispered confessions reached Gina’s ears from a being scarcely able to control its excitement. Sometimes a few teeth under fleshy lips were partially revealed, but Gina could not make out their shape, color, or size. The figure remained a mystery, promising possible delights, always shielding itself behind the door. Perhaps that is why Gina was captivated for such an absurdly long moment. The words were unintelligible, although Gina thought or believed she knew she was being invited to discover the secrets of the house and of its only inhabitant. The partial face did not reveal any annoyance at the delay, but took pleasure in overcoming Gina’s resistance astutely and tenaciously.

Tiny drops of perspiration appeared on the forehead. The locks of blonde hair rested on the shoulders, hiding a sharp collarbone. The hand held on to the door, preventing a view of the parts of the figure that could only be glimpsed. Gina took one step toward the house and immediately stopped, arrested by the caution which the hidden figure aroused in her.

“Come in, don’t be afraid.”

The tone of the voice was a muffled neutrality. It was a nasal voice, projected with the intention of inspiring confidence. Gina took one step forward and then two more until she found herself at the entrance. The eye shone, penetrated by the dying light from the street, and the lips smiled seductively, revealing big, yellow teeth crowded into the mouth. The jeweled hand left the door and stretched itself out amicably to Gina, offering its long fingers which—more than asking—implored the visitor to come in.

“Come in, come,” the voice insisted with seductive clarity.

Opening on its rusted hinges, the door squeaked. The woman disappeared, allowing Gina to pass, and a few seconds later reappeared. She then carefully drew the latch with a quick, almost involuntary movement. Gina saw herself before a very tall Marie Antoinette, enigmatic and jovial, now bent on hiding behind a feather fan that she fluttered with haughty grace. Gina smiled, noticing certain bodily details of this Queen of France: peroxide blonde hair, with tangled, matted, strands; ashen skin; sharp, artificially pink cheek bones; the look of someone who had been away from others far too long and appreciates someone’s passing company; a pearl necklace circling an extremely thin neck; the small breasts, hidden or concealed in the folds of a ruffled bodice; the pompous gown, dome-shaped like a cathedral, of an old, ethereal yellow, like a centuries-old dust storm.

“Sit down,” said Marie Antoinette, raising the tone of her voice.

Enthralled by a splendid fantasy she could not entirely understand, Gina let herself fall into the chair offered by the queen. It was then that she felt the sovereign’s heavy breathing. Gina put up with the smoky, alcohol breath; viewed up close the bleached, ghostly skin; the metallic glitter that decorated the eyelids; the scarlet worm which—without pronouncing a word—slithered provocatively under the nose; the crude and bony shoulders; the tense arms struggling to arrange a cushion on the chair so that Gina would feel completely comfortable. After walking around the living room a bit, Marie Antoinette brought a jar and opened it in front of Gina. The young visitor didn’t dare touch what the queen was offering. Her indecisiveness might give her away. She had heard so many stories about wicked witches who poisoned their victims with tempting candies or appetizing apples. Her eyes could not resist being fascinated by the candy. Salty liquid inundated her mouth. Finally, the queen handed her the dazzling, transparent object with the magical colors of tropical fruit hidden inside.

“They’re yours,” said Marie Antoinette, covering her teeth with the fan. “Eat the ones you want and you can take the rest with you.”

And she immediately turned off the main overhead light, lit a lamp, and ran to a corner where there was a phonograph that she activated before Gina had put the first candy in her mouth. The soft music of courtships and love affairs from an imperial palace wafted through the room. The queen moved—with the fan in her hand—through the spacious area of the room, stepped delicately on the tile floor with intricate arabesques, turned under the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Gina followed the queen’s dance, memorized her graceful movements, and once in a while covered her face to hide her laughter when she saw Marie Antoinette’s skirt fly up with the energetic movement of the dancer and, when it rose more than was proper, exposed skinny, hairy legs.

Marie Antoinette finished the minuet and, when she bid farewell to her imaginary partner, she made a prolonged curtsy that Gina welcomed with applause. Worn out from the exertion, out of breath, the queen said she ought to “rest a while lest she expire;” then she approached Gina and asked her if it would be possible to take a seat next to her, to have the privilege of being next to the beautiful apparition she had so long awaited. Gina did not understand the meaning of those last words and, as a way of answering, she moved over on the chair, made room for the queen who lay down on the cushions with refined movements, gathering her skirt somewhat modestly and affectedly, holding it tight so as to avoid exposing her naked legs. She immediately lit a Havana cigar and with the first puff her face began to glow with pleasure.

For a few seconds, the two of them kept silent. Gina’s chewing was the only sound that could be heard. Her teeth crushed one candy after another. Her tongue sucked the crystallized pulp and the soft, sweetened center. For the time being, this was Gina’s main activity. Now that she was by her side, she did not look at the queen as before, as if she had already lost part of her charm. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, freely scrutinized her new friend, but did not dare say a word, for fear of breaking the spell brought on by music, candy, and an old carnival dress. She took a glass from the table close to the chair, a few ice cubes from a bowl, and served herself liquor from a bulbous decanter, downing in one gulp the contents of the glass. Gina noticed the sudden transformation in the queen. She turned red, perspired, trembled all over, and—at that moment—she gathered strength and dared to touch Gina’s face. Gina was so perturbed by the caress that the queen tried to make up for it with a white lie:

“They’re strange, don’t you think?” Marie Antoinette asked looking at her nails. “I read somewhere that fingers are like the branches of a tree and nails are something like the leaves. That’s why I painted them green. Did you realize that Marie Antoinette was so outlandish?”

Gina shook her head no, took the queen’s hand and the bright green nails with fixed bewilderment. The queen caressed her again. She brushed Gina’s hair with her fingers. She came close in order to kiss Gina on the forehead. Gina could hear Marie Antoinette’s heartbeats. Gina felt the accelerated rhythm of that terrible drum that beat in the majestic chest and drowned out her breathing, cut her breath, made her put her hand to her neck, close her eyes, and fall into an apparent sleep. Gina did not know why—by this point, she would not know or find out why—that unwonted caress from the queen tasted like something tremendous, and the last candy she was savoring froze in her mouth. She stopped chewing. Her jaws and tongue became paralyzed, as she forced herself to make out the phrases that ecstatically blurted out of the queen’s mouth. But it was useless. She only perceived an inarticulate, confused sound without nuances; the low cooing of an ungainly pigeon in love. The queen’s hands were dry and gave off a scalding heat. Gina recalled the fears that ran through her house about a strange occurrence—unknown to her—that took place some time back in the queen’s house. She remembered the admonitions, the advice, the warnings never to visit this house. Despite it all, here she was. The prohibition had awakened an irrepressible curiosity, a desire to explore this neighboring dwelling, and find out whether what so perturbed her family had any basis. They said that Mrs. Marcela had not committed suicide. Her unexpected death by poisoning could have been planned by her husband, old man Rogelio, the widower with blue eyes who—since then—had remained confined, solitary, dangerous.

“Come, I want to show you something,” Marie Antoinette invited her, noticing that Gina sheepishly shunned her caresses. She took Gina’s hand and the two of them stood up. They crossed the living room, which to Gina seemed darker and quieter than before, although she could see the paintings hanging on the walls as they walked down a hallway that took them to an inner room. They came across images of black men and strangers stripped to the waist, grotesque figures of angry people who raised their fists at the viewer, a tortuous world in India ink and charcoal that Gina could not entirely comprehend.

The queen abandoned the graceful gestures she had displayed when her visitor first appeared at the entrance of the house. She transformed her subtle movements into rougher, more direct ones. Her unsure steps hid the firm purpose of accomplishing what she proposed to do. She had made a decision and was going to see it through. This was to be seen in the way she grabbed Gina’s hand and led her down the hallway to the other rooms. When they reached their destination, the queen made sure not to leave the door open. It was the first time Gina thought she heard Adela’s voice, who called her from a distance separated by back yards and walls. It was a familiar voice, which flew over the plants in the garden, through the thick vines that grew in the surroundings, and reached Gina directly. At that point, Gina regretted having gone out without telling anyone where she was going.

“There are all sorts of things here. Do you want to try on one of these?” Marie Antoinette asked, opening up a large chest from which she took out several fancy dresses. Gina kneeled down. She could not believe what she was seeing. It was as if she were in the pages of some story where dwarfs, magicians, and fairies suddenly materialize and the simple, concrete houses turn into marzipan and chocolate. The queen beheld with pleasure Gina’s puzzled attitude, walked around her, sweeping the accumulated dust on the floor with her skirt.

“I’m going to bring you something to drink,” Marie Antoinette whispered and at once opened a small refrigerator that was very close by and took out a jug. Gina did not know whether to drink from the glass she was being offered.

“Drink up. It’s punch and I know you’ll like it because I made it especially for you.”

She wanted to refuse. She wanted escape from the house exactly the way she had come, but she was too far away from any exit. First, she had to leave the room, go down the hallway, reach the living room, and open the latch that Marie Antoinette had put on the door. Her indecisiveness worried the queen, who almost forced Gina to take the glass. Gina tasted a pleasant liquid, the likes of which she had never experienced before. The queen smiled. Gina kept drinking until she finished it all. The queen poured out more, and Gina drank again after only a slight reluctance.

“Which one do you want to put on?” asked the only one who did the asking, offering, suggesting, explaining. Gina limited herself to listening, obeying, following instructions. Obediently, at first, since her curiosity had not yet turned to fear, Gina then became reluctant, until she finally gave herself up to the moment, suddenly overcome by all the euphoria she wanted to share, unconcerned whether the queen was good or bad, whether her family’s punishment would be worse than Marie Antoinette’s surprises.

“Which one do you want to put on?” the voice repeated. The question was a temptation that Gina did not want to avoid. At the bottom of the chest there was everything she could imagine to get dressed up in and enter the queen’s world. That way, and only that way, would they be equals, cease being two distinct people—one from a fantasy, and the other real—and the two would enter a dream world. There was a Snow White dress that she found too large for her thin body. Then she took out what could have been a Cinderella outfit the night of the ball where she loses her slipper. It was a lavish dress, full of rhinestones that in another time had been shiny, but now clung to the tulle with difficulty. The third one, a faded red dress with a frayed hood, filled her with nostalgia. The queen followed every one of Gina’s moves. She saw reflected in Gina’s face her dismay, her uncertainty, her passion to dream. And between one dream and another, the queen gave her guest glasses of punch that Gina now drank without hesitation.

She kept piling dresses beside the chest. She did not want to dress up as an Amazon or an oriental ballerina or a nurse. She piled up dresses, separating hats and accessories with which they belonged. Tired, she stopped searching, using the chest to support herself she lowered her eyes, trying to get ahold of herself. The queen let her be. She did not say anything. She stood there taking in the scene with those pale, blue eyes.

Adela shouted again. This time there were two voices that reached through the bars on the windows and into the bedroom. Gina’s mother also joined Adela, the nanny, in a fruitless search. Marie Antoinette must have heard them also, although from the look on her face, it was not apparent. Gina began to experience a numbness she had never felt before. Her willpower was gone. She felt that her face was swollen and that her body belonged to someone else.

“If you don’t decide,” said the queen, “I’m going to have to help you.”

Gina continued removing dresses with lethargic movements. Gina’s long hair interfered with her task. It got in her eyes, preventing her from distinguishing the things that were still in the chest. Then, somewhat fatigued, she uttered her first words since entering the house:

“Would you help me, please?”

Marie Antoinette rushed to the chest and quickly selected a dress.

“It’s Alice’s,” the queen reassured her, “from Alice in Wonderland. What a beautiful dress!”

Gina dropped her glass, which rolled away staining the floor’s dusty surface. Ignoring what had happened, the queen insisted, most solicitously, on undressing her guest with trembling hands that evidenced her desire. “First, you have to get undressed,” she said in a serious tone that gave her away, without taking care anymore to raise the pitch of her voice. In the haste of her task, she tore off buttons from Gina’s dress, trying to unfasten them as quickly as possible. Her sentences were now clear and left no room for doubt. The queen was flattering, pronounced words that were sickly sweet and obscene, which she accompanied with suffocating caresses, kisses that would leave an acrid saliva on Gina’s skin. “You have such beautiful hair,” Gina would hear her whisper, and that stench of tobacco and liquor pierced her nose, penetrated her pores and all the orifices of her body.

Gina’s back was bare. The queen had pulled off the sash that fastened the dress to Gina’s waist. The queen let out a muffled groan of delight when she saw the small, naked body. Marie Antoinette’s hands ran over the curves on the body of that skinny, tender, little girl, lacking voluptuous outgrowths; a small body whose female attributes were beginning to blossom at the hips and breasts. Gina fell deeper into a heavy drowsiness. She struggled to stay awake, but she felt that everything was turning dark and that, in the hallway, the bizarre characters in the paintings were beginning to come off the walls.

The queen led her to a large, springy bed. She removed Gina’s shoes, socks, and panties. Gina offered no resistance. She was in a daze, completely naked on the bed, with no strength left to think or move. Only her ears remained attentive; she could still recognize Adela’s voice, calling persistently; and her mother’s, ridden with anguish. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette removed the last obstructing bits of finery. They had served their purpose and were now unnecessary. She yanked off her the tangled hairpiece. She took off her dress, the stiff crinoline that filled out her skirt, the antique shoes. Gina could not hear the rustle of the cloth. She could no longer see Marie Antoinette—palpitating like an animal in heat—recovering her true identity, showing the hairy chest, the muscles of a lustful body, those long, skinny legs, fall over her like a spear aimed at the very heart of a body in chains.
 
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JOSÉ ALCÁNTARA ALMÁNZAR has been active in the intellectual life of his native Dominican Republic since he edited Antología de la literatura dominicana in 1972. Between 1973 and 1989, he authored five collections of short stories. In 1993, the Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico issued El sabor de lo prohibido: antología personal de cuentos from which this short story is taken. In addition to appearing in Puerto Rico, his work in Spanish has also been published in Mexico, the United States, Bulgaria, and Spain. Translations of Alcántara’s work have been done into English, German, Icelandic, and Italian. His short stories in English translation have appeared in Callaloo and Review: Latin American Literature and Arts. His most recent books are Reflejos del siglo veinte, Cuentos para jóves, and Hijos del silencio: Ensayos in Spanish and Where the Dream Ends in English translation.
 
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About the Translator:

 
LUIS GUZMÁN VALERIO has a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures with a specialization in Hispanic Linguistics from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. His translations have appeared in Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language & Culture and FIVE:2:ONE #thesideshow Flash Fiction. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chiricú Journal: Latina/o Literatures, Arts, and Cultures. His work in FIVE:2:ONE #thesideshow Flash Fiction can be found here.

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