The Lament of Maria Bárbola

from Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez

Madrid, 1700

The summer has gone. The red carnations are fading. Now I too must leave the Spanish court.

I stand in front of the painting one last time.

It takes me back to the day, many decades ago, when I visited the studio of the great master Velázquez with the ladies-in-waiting and my mistress, the Infanta Margaret Theresa, then just a child.

The painting is like a frozen moment in time, showing the princess observing her parents having their portrait painted. And here am I, the dwarf Maria Bárbola, standing at the right. I meet my own eyes and it is like looking in a mirror, except now I am old and grey and arthritic.

I wonder if people will remember me when I have gone. What will they make of me – this plain woman, in black silk, who looks back so boldly?

The new King Philip, a boy of only 17, in his quest for modernity has decreed that dwarfs are no longer welcome at court, along with fools and jesters. But are we so very undesirable? Are we not made of flesh and blood like everyone else?

So that is that.

Never mind that I have served this court and the royal family every day for nearly 50 years. I must leave to return to a country I barely remember, to speak a tongue I have rarely uttered for half a century.

But I cannot complain.

My young mistress is already more than 25 years in her own cold grave. Margaret Theresa left this land of sunshine and dust for the snow and rain of Austria to become the Holy Roman Empress. Grand titles were not enough to save her, poor lamb, and she died when she was only 21 years old following the birth of her fourth child.

I well remember when she was the young girl of the painting. Everyone loved the Infanta. Our little angel would sing, play her harpsichord and bring joy to all around her. No-one minded her temper tantrums, when she would scream and shout and stamp her little foot if she did not get her own way. She was a great comfort to her mother, Queen Mariana, who had already buried three tiny coffins.

Today I will leave the royal palace in Madrid and begin the long journey to return to my native Austria.

My parents are long dead, so I must live with cousins I do not know. I fear I will not be of any use to them. I cannot cook and am not a needlewoman. My years in Madrid have made me good for nothing, except polite conversation and etiquette. Will that help me in Austria?

But no-one can take away my memories – my memories of this great court, and the knowledge that I will continue to exist in this great painting that I will never see again.

I tear myself away from it to return to my room and pack the last of my belongings.

Gracias a Dios.

The anchondroplastic dwarf Maria Bárbola served the Spanish court from 1651-1700. Little is known of her return to Austria.

Shani Naylor lives in New Zealand and is a former journalist. She has had short stories published in Flash Frontier, Toasted Cheese, Fairlight Books, The Drabble and Top of the Morning Book of Incredibly Short Stories, and selected for broadcast on Scotland’s Heartland FM. She is now working on a novella.