My Year of Living Backwards: Red Queen to White Queen, Part 5: Chess & Politics

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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 family
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor

Click here for Part I.

The next morning, after breakfast, Don Claudio opened the dining room window and lit his first cigarette of the day. His housekeeper was fussy and insisted he smoke by an open window. He drew in a few quick puffs, gazing, as he always did, at the mountains that towered over the city. As he flicked his ash onto the flower beds, he was startled by an roar of indignation. He looked down, into the gaze of a furious toddler.x.xx

“”Marcela!”

He leaned out the window and tried to brush the ashes from her hair.

The black eyes narrowed in a menacing frown.

“Magda. M-A-G-D-A.”

Claudio had known many children in his lifetime. None had been able to spell at the age of three. Clearly, her duenna had taught her to memorize the letters of her name.

“Where is Manolo?” The words were sharp, precise, with no trace of baby lisp.

“Who?”

A look of exasperation came over the child’s face. It was the same look Don Claudio saw on his housekeeper’s face when she caught him smoking in the linen closet. xxx

“Manolo. M-A-N-0-L-0.”

“I’m sorry, child, I….”

The little girl’s hands formed themselves into claws and her mouth twisted sideways in a loud roar.

“The lion monkey, of course! Wait here!”

Claudio raced to the linen closet, praying he would get there before the housekeeper began her morning rounds. A panicked clicking sound greeted him as he opened the door, and a tiny brown missile missed his head by centimetres. The monkey was reaching for another from the mound by his feet when Claudio grabbed him by the collar. Thinking quickly, he gathered the remaining pile of feces into a napkin, threw it into the bin of soiled tablecloths, and raced out the door.

Claudio had presented the animal to his brother the night before. Though dubious about the gift, Cosimo had gamely stretched out a tentative finger. The monkey’s tiny, ferocious teeth immediately fastened on it.

“She’ll never let us keep it,” said Cosimo, pressing a handkerchief to his finger.

Since childhood, the two had presented a united front against any obstacle. Today’s obstacle was their formidable housekeeper. The two men in their 50s plotted like children behind her back. Neither wanted the monkey; neither would be bullied into giving it away.

Claudio dropped the animal — it could hardly be called a pet — into Magda’s waiting arms and lit another cigarette. So began a tradition that lasted throughout Magda’s childhood. Each morning after her father set out for the city, the child crept over to the brothers’ house, bearing fruit and nuts in a small bag. Claudio would mount guard, smoking. For the rest of the day, the monkey was chained to a perch in the back patio, where it amused itself by tormenting the laundress. It was she who had encountered the small pile of feces in the linen that first morning. She refrained from questioning the housekeeper about it. The ways of the rich were a closed book to her and she preferred to keep it that way.

Claudio had encountered few people who could grasp concepts as quickly as Magda. In the short half hour they spent together each day, Magda interrogated him with questions she had prepared in advance. Her learning was an eclectic mix of words gleaned from the dictionary, mingled with astonishingly biased statements about the country’s fractious politics.

Magda’s duenna, Señora Rodriguez, could offer Magda little more than basic reading and writing, along with a smattering of history from her own highly subjective point of view. In fact, it had been Señora Rodriquez’s hatred of the liberal party that inspired Don Arturo to engage her in the first place.

The duenna’s older brother had been killed during the civil wars of the 1860s. “He died fighting the liberal tyrants,” she would say, tears in her eyes for the childhood hero she barely remembered.

“My mother told me how they surprised their encampment just as the dinner bell rang. He was hacked to pieces with a machete, as he was standing in line waiting for his dinner. My mother was given his tin plate as a holy relic. Throughout my childhood, it stood on the mantle over our fireplace, right under the picture of the Virgin of Chiquinquirá. My mother said we must never forget the brave young man who sacrificed his own life, so that others might live in freedom.”

Magda had been to other homes where battered swords hung above home-made shrines. The dried blood on their blades had made even Magda shiver. She wondered how heroic a man could be, when his sole contribution to the war effort was summed up in a dinner plate, polished and shining, with not even a dent to indicate some resistance on his part. She refrained from sharing these doubts with her duenna.

Her father’s concern for the family finances ensured that mathematics also had their place in Magda’s curriculum. Out of the blue, he would pose complicated word problems. These shared moments provided the only intimacy the girl knew with her father.

“Pay attention, daughter. This morning, that old she-thief, the fruit seller, appeared at my door with a bag of maracuya and lulo. The maracuya were priced at 21 centavos each, while the lulo were only 7 centavos. When I looked in the basket, I saw that about 20% of the maracuya were already over-ripe, while at least 40% of the lulo would not ripen for at least two weeks. By that time, there would be a glut on the market, and prices of lulo would fall even farther. The she-villain told me she’d give me the whole bag, at a bargain price of 12 centavos per fruit. I just laughed at her and said I’d give her … well, Magda, you tell me. How much did I offer the old hag?”

So it was that Magda imbibed a large dose of bile along with her instruction from her two aged caregivers. Claudio did what he could to redress the damage, but his influence was limited to just 30 minutes a day.

He sometimes jotted down the details of their more extraordinary conversations. The following took place when she was five.

“Tell me, Señor…” Magda spoke only in the imperative and never once addressed him as Don Claudio. Claudio finally gave up asking.

“Tell me, Señor, how one would use the word ‘prepotent’ in a sentence.”

Satisfied with his attempt, she followed with another quasi question:

“Tell me, Señor, when Núñez Moledo conducts the black mass…”

Claudio raised a hand to interrupt her. “Magda, how could the president possibly find time to conduct a black mass, when so many people are watching him from morning to night? Why just last week, his daily schedule was published in El Espectador. His day begins when his private secretary pulls back the covers of his bed and gives him the early morning newspaper. From there, it’s one meeting after another until his valet tucks him into bed at night.”

Magda nodded solemnly. To her methodical mind, this explanation made far more sense than the one offered up by Señora Rodriquez. Claudio had found it useless to simply contradict the child. It was always necessary to challenge her with a more rational idea.

By the age of seven, Magda had already learned everything that Señora Rodriguez was able to teach her. Claudio shuddered to think how Magda might have fared, were it not for a sudden fortuitous intervention when she was eight. Don Arturo had engaged a priest from a Belgian order to teach her the rudiments of faith.

“Just the rudiments,” he insisted, “ I won’t have my daughter becoming a nun. Her destiny is to marry and raise a large family.”

Young as she was, Magda knew there was another reason behind the directive. Becoming a holy sister required the family to pay a large dowry to offset the costs of a lifetime’s room and board. For the first and last time, Magda was grateful for her father’s parsimony.

At the insistance of Don Arturo, Señora Rodriguez sat in on all lessons with the priest. Teacher and student focused on simple catechism for the 20 minutes or so it took the duenna to doze off. Her rhythmic breathing and occasional yips, the exact sound emitted by a dreaming dog, told them she was well under. Father Martens would creep close to the old crone, to listen to her breathing. Then, rubbing his hands together in glee, he would reach into the deep pocket of his soutane. From there, he retrieved a miniature chess board and mahogany box.

At first, the little girl simply marveled at the intricate carvings of the tiny pieces, while Father Martens explained their history and role.

“We can tell that this one is a bishop by his mitre. The artist who carved these must have a sense of humour. Do you see how his mitre is slightly askew? It reminds me of our own bishop, Monsignor de Clercq. I simply can’t understand how a man with such sloppy dress habits rose all the way to bishop.”

Magda had moved on, fingering another piece.

“Ah,” said Father Martens. “That is your Queen, one of the most two most powerful players on the board. She must be carefully protected: the loss of one’s queen is a tragedy my child, a tragedy. For then the player is left unable to defend his king.”

Father Martens stroked his own queen lovingly then set it down on her colour.

“The queen’s movement is unrestricted. Do you see how she runs, sidles, strikes? She’s like a scorpion, relentless in pursuit of her enemy.”

Father Martens spoke directly to Magda, looking into her eyes to press home the point. “Chess, my child, is a game of priorities. You are not there simply to seize the territory right in front of your nose. Oh no, you are the general, overseeing the battle from a higher realm.”

A long, breathy whistle from Señora Rodriquez distracted them for a moment.

“Yes, just like …ahem… Moses overseeing the battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites.”

The rhythmic breathing reestablished itself. Father Martens turned once more to the chess board. “This is the White Queen, your enemy. Ignore her at your peril. If you allow her to grow in power, you diminish. You must seize the seat of power quickly, using all the other pieces to help you. Take your eyes off them, even for a moment, and all could be lost.”

Father Marten pulled up a chair and set two pillows upon it, so that Magda could survey the board from a higher vantage point, her eyes on a level with his own.

“Remember, child, that chess is all about strength and weakness: building the strength of your own forces, while exploiting the weakness of your opponents.”

It was a lesson Magda never forgot.

Join me on Thursday, March 10, for another excerpt from Chapter 2. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the pubic domain.

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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.

This entry was posted in Arts & Culture, BC, Canada, Education, Fun, History, Lifestyle, Lifestyle & Health, Politics, World and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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