My Year of Living Backwards: Red Queen to White Queen, Part 4: The Lion Monkey


The tiny Pygmy Marmoset, known as mico de leon in Columbia.

Over the next year, on Mondays and Thursdays, I will introduce consecutive passages from my new novel, Red Queen to White Queen.

The book explores how a Colombian matriarch came to exert a lifelong dominance over her family, until a newcomer threatens her reign. At the end of each chapter, you will find a recipe from the book.

Cast of Characters:
Magdalena (Magda): Already in her 80s when the book begins, Magda is the most powerful figure in her family. Flashbacks 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
Seňora Moreno: Family friend of long standing
Desiderio: Magda’s son xxx
Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the familyx
Click here for Part

Chapter 2, 1892, almost 80 years earlier

Don Claudio was drinking his tinto from an upper window when he spotted the tall, white-haired man on the steps of the house next door. All week, movers had been disappearing into the house carrying boxes and furniture. Don Claudio folded his newspaper and drank the last of his coffee, black and sweet as he liked it. Moments later, he was on his neighbour’s front stoop, stretching out his hand to the newcomer.

“Seňor! Allow be the first to welcome you to the neighbourhood.”

Of Italian birth, Don Claudio took full advantage of the freedom extended to foreigners. His neighbours might wait months for an introduction to a newcomer, even one who moved in next door. Don Claudio broke the rules with impunity.

His first volley of words slammed into a wall of silence. Don Claudio took a breath and struggled on.

“On behalf of all our neighbours, let me be the first to say that you are entirely welcome here,” he said, carelessly taking liberties to which he had no right.

“Arturo Cordova.” The accent was Castilian, the handshake reluctant.

“Well, Señor Cordova, I’m sure you will enjoy it here. We property owners meet once a month to discuss our common concerns. Next month it is our turn, my brother’s and mine, to host the gathering. It will be an excellent opportunity for you to be introduced.”

Don Claudio heard his own voice, a notch higher and a pace faster than usual. He was aware of pattering on and on in the face of the man’s silence, but couldn’t seem to stop himself. The stranger’s perfect detachment rattled him.

A tug on his trouser leg interrupted the flow of words. Looking down, he saw the black head of a child. The baby was about three, her skin a much darker hue that that of her father. Dark, heavy brows were drawn together in a single line.

“Magda,” the child said, thumping emphatically on her chest. Two chubby legs were planted wide apart on the brick step, taking ownership of the property. Her other hand waved a toy windmill as if it were a flag. Don Claudio, who loved children, was charmed and amused at the sight of this small, sturdy conquistadora.

Don Arturo was also looking at the child, his face a mixture of shock and unease. An absurd thought came to Don Claudio: this was the look that any Colombian might give to the sight of a Zulu warrior standing on his front stoop.

Don Claudio jumped as the man’s voice rang out:

“Señora Rodiguez! Señora Rodriguez!”

A black-garbed crone emerged from the carriage, clutching an assortment of wraps and toys. She reached up to take a black valise from the hands of the coachman then ascended the small flight of stairs towards them, puffing as she came.

“Excuse me, Seňor. I was just gathering the child’s belongings,” she said, setting the valise carefully upon the stoop. The moment she did so, a loud mewing sound emitted from the bag.

“What is that noise?”

“What noise, Seňor?”

“Do not be obtuse with me, woman. There’s a noise coming from the bag.”

All at once, Magda started screaming and tugging at her dress. Don Claudio and the old lady turned to the child. The woman dropped to her knees and began to frantically pat the child all over. Perhaps she been stung by an insect or pricked by a loose pin in her clothing. Don Claudio stood by helplessly, making soothing noises. Anguished, he looked to Don Arturo, hoping he would deal with the child’s distress. But Don Arturo was still staring at the valise.

Raising his voice above the din, the child’s father turned to the old woman:

“Señora Rodriguez! I asked you to open the bag.”

The old lady was rising from her knees when Magda streaked past her. Grabbing the valise, she held it tight in two chubby arms. Don Arturo had to wrest it from her grasp. Don Claudio was unsure whether to stay or go. He was torn between his embarrassment at witnessing this loss of parental discipline and his desire to know how the scene would unfold. Curiosity won out.

Don Arturo was holding at arm’s length—not a cat, as Don Claudio had expected, but a mico leon, a lion monkey, small enough to fit in his pocket. With his other hand, the father was fending off a furious and sobbing Magda, who was pummeling his thighs with her fists. Even in the midst of his sympathy for the child’s pain, Don Claudio was fascinated by the huge tears popping out at perfect 90-degree angles from her black eyes.

“Seňora, I told you that this…this thing… was to remain in Medellin.”

“Si Seňor, of course, Seňor. And it did.”

Don Arturo cast a withering look at the woman.

“Then can you explain to me how it got to be in this bag? Never mind,” he said, holding up a hand to the old woman, “I’m not interested. Give it to the driver to dispose of in the river.”

The wails from the small, black-browed child rose to an ear-piercing shriek.

“Had you chosen to be obedient, Magda, this creature would now be safe in Medellin.”

Don Arturo was clearly from the tribe of men who grew more irritatingly logical in the face of intense emotion. Don Claudio felt a sharp stab of pity for the child. Desperate to intervene, he turned back to the small, spitting monkey held in Don Arturo’s outstretched hand. Its outsized eyes were fixed aggressively upon its captor, its ringed tail raised in a stiff, bristling arch. A high, sharp whine emerged from its open mouth, the sound interspersed occasionally by a rapid click.

“Un mico leon,” Don Claudio exclaimed in feigned delight. Then, lying as fast as he could, “My brother has always wanted one!”

Don Arturo transferred his look of distaste from the monkey to Don Claudio.

“Then he would do well to reconsider. They are dreadful pets. They throw their excrement and bite when provoked. My daughter here is the only living creature who can handle him.”

Don Claudio looked down at the small virago at his feet. Magda’s frantic attack had subsided somewhat, her sobs lower in volume and less frequent. Don Claudio realized, with amazement, that the baby was closely following every word. It gave him confidence to pursue the path he was following.

“Oh, my brother is very skilled with animals,” said Don Arturo, ignoring the fact that Cosimo’s entire veterinary experience consisted of moving an injured bird from the middle of the street to the curb. Even then, he had insisted on picking it up with his handkerchief.

“Please let me have it. In fact, I’ll buy it from you.”

He knew this was an inspired idea when he saw the glint of interest in Don Arturo’s eyes.

“But it’s mine!”

“Hush, child. The gentleman is speaking.”

Don Claudio marveled at his own sudden elevation in status. Then dropping to his haunches, he whispered in the small girl’s ear. “You can come visit it, darling, any time you want,” he said, blithely committing himself, his brother, and their housekeeper to a long and undreamed of Calvary. He wondered how long lion monkeys survived.

Join me on Monday, March 7, for the next excerpt in Chapter 2. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the pubic domain.

image 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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