My Year of Living Backwards – Red Queen to White Queen


Over the next year, on Mondays and Thursdays, author Susan Young de Biagi will introduce consecutive passages from her new novel, Red Queen to White Queen. The book explores how a Columbian matriarch came to exert a lifelong dominance over her family, until the arrival of a stranger threatens her reign.

Cast of Characters:
Magdalena (Magda): In her 90s when the book begins, Magda is the most powerful figure in her family. Flashbooks explore the life that made her who she is.
Rosalba: Magda’s daughter, who has devoted her life to the care of her mother.
Immaculata (Imma): Magda’s lifelong servant
Dante: Magda’s husband
And more to come.

Rosalba swept one last glance down the row of cutlery, then turned the key hard to the right, testing the lock. She nodded to Immaculata, whose shoulders dropped in relief. Together, the two crossed over to the heavy, dark armoire. Of their own accord, Rosalba’s fingers sought and found the key hanging from her belt. The lock creaked, as it had since the days when Rosalba was no more than a small shadow at her mother’s side, watching mistress and maid perform the same ritual. Now it was Rosalba`s turn. Her mother sat by the window, a dark, formidable presence in her wheelchair. Immaculata, the little maid who had once trotted beside her, was now an old lady, wizened of face though still sprightly of step.

As Immaculata held out her hands, Rosalba piled the blankets onto them. These were the white wool blankets of Guatavita, renowned for their dense warmth in that cold country. Rosalba recalled the day of their purchase. She had been standing beside her father, watching his hands with their short, varnished nails run lovingly over the weave. As a little girl, she had rejoiced that such a magnificent being belonged to her. Her reign was not exclusive however. She knew and accepted the power he wielded over women. Under his gaze, the woman behind the counter had stammered out a ridiculously low price.

Rosalba glanced inside the armoire to make sure nothing was left behind, then wielded her key again. It was a scene that was played out over and over as the years droned on: locking one cabinet, unlocking another, the endless taking out and putting away. And all the while, the first chatelaine of the house sat by the window, nodding her head to the clanging of the keys.

Her arms filled with blankets, Immaculata moved slowly toward the bed, cautiously skirting the circle of light around the wheelchair. Rosalba had never seen her mother mistreat the maid; nor did she question the old servant`s fear.

From her seat by the window, Magdalena turned her head toward the noiseless patter of bare feet on polished floors. Her sight was not what it had been, but her hearing was so acute she could hear if someone whispered her name in the next room.

“¿Quien es?”

Who is it?

“Disculpeme, senora, soy yo.”

Forgive me, lady, it is I.


Immaculata had finished arranging the blankets and was waiting for Rosalba in the shadows beside the bed. It would take two of them to lift the heavy body. Other women, and men, grew frail with age. Magda had only grown more solid.

Rosalba bustled over to her mother’s chair.

“The carousel has stopped, Mama. Let me wind it for you.”


Rosalba turned the key on the small, bright toy with its dancing horses. The old head bobbed in tune to the light tinkling music; the rheumy eyes focused on the dancing figures, a moment only before Magda retreated back into a world of her own. The music tinkled on.

The music box had been Rosalba’s, a gift from her father on their one trip to Italy. Somehow, it had come into her mother`s possession, as did all things eventually. Rosalba had never questioned Magda`s right to rule. Long ago, it had been established that the eldest daughter remain at her mother’s side, devoting her life to her care. Some mothers waived this right, letting the girls choose for themselves. In other homes, the sacrifice fell to the girl most wary of married life. But this home held no other daughters and Rosalba`s father had seen no reason to argue with his wife`s decision. Though loving and indulgent, he had no inclination to gift his girl into another man’s hands.

Such a sacrifice had never been demanded of Magda herself. No one knew what had become of the woman who had given birth to her. Magda spoke only of her father, Don Arturo, with his elegant Spanish lisp and old-world manner. Rosalba was aware of the whispers: that Magda, with her fierce dark looks, had been born of a union between Don Arturo and his Chibcha housekeeper. Kinder souls speculated that Don Arturo had adopted the child of an impoverished couple. If Magda knew the secret of her birth, she spoke of it to no one. She was, perhaps, relieved that no inconvenient, Creole mother had demanded the sacrifice of her youth. Magda had always ordered her life as it suited her and everyone else succumbed to her will: everyone, that is, except one. But that came much, much later.

Join me, on Thursday, February 25, as Chapter 1 continues! All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the pubic domain.


Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn. 

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou—my first novel—I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.

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