My Year of Living Backwards – Red Queen to White Queen, Part 6: The Guardian at the Gate


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
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor

Click here for Part I.

Magda ran her hands over the smooth planes and sharp edges of the black knight.

“I like this one the best.”

“Ah, the knight: the most unpredictable of all the pieces. He is the only player who can change the colour of his square.”

The lessons—in chess or catechism, depending on the speaker—continued over the winter. Every Friday throughout those winter afternoons, Father Martens arrived precisely at 2:50, just before the hour of chocolate. The drink was accompanied by hot, crispy churros, purchased in the street barely half an hour before.

This was one of the few errands Magda was permitted to undertake on her own, skipping down the street to the next block. Señora Rodriguez watched from an upper window, her concern not so much for the child’s safety as for her virtue. The duenna was more spy than protector.

Magda loved to watch the street vendor drop the pastries into the hot fat, where they bobbed on the surface for awhile before turning a deep golden brown. The vendor blotted the hot pastries on yesterday’s newspaper, sprinkled them with cinnamon sugar, then slipped them into a paper sack. Tell-tale grease spots hinted at the sack’s precious contents.

Magda tried to time her return to coincide with that of Father Martens, often meeting him on the stoop just as he was ringing the bell.

“Have another churro, Señora Rodriguez. I’ve had plenty,” said the priest, patting a non-existent tummy.

Magda had spent the last year immersed in tales of knights and sorcery, found in her father’s library and read in secret. She saw the churros and chocolate as a magic potion, designed to lull into a deep sleep the guardian at the gate. Her old duenna could not resist their lure. Replete with sugar and fat, Señora Rodriguez snored on. Meanwhile, the chess lessons continued, their two combatants growing closer by the hour.

“Why have you never married, Father Martens?”

“I’m afraid, my child, that I never found my queen,” he said, neatly capturing Magda’s knight with his bishop. She frowned.

The end came in early February. Cold rain was pelting on the windows and the two were wrapped to their ears in layers of clothing, moving the chess pieces around the board with gloved fingers. From within her nest of blankets, Señora Rodriguez’ snored away like a huge rumbling volcano in the corner of the room. Magda’s father refused to heat the house on principle but no one thought to complain. The inhabitants were used to Don Arturo’s economies while Father Martens belonged to an ascetic order. It was far more comfortable to be cold in Don Arturo’s house than in the seminary. At least here, he could warm himself with chocolate and delight in the warm chatter of the child.
The two were so absorbed in the game that they did not hear the door opening.

“What is this?”

The cold voice froze the two players into statues. From somewhere under her heap of blankets, Señora Rodriguez snored on. Magda could hear the clock ticking.

Father Martens rose slowly to his feet.

“Forgive me, Don Arturo, we had finished our lesson and I wished to entertain the child.”

“I am not paying you to entertain the child.”

Magda looked at Father Martens in dismay. Was her friend being paid to visit her?

The priest shook his head reassuringly at the girl, before turning again to her father.

“Forgive me, Don Arturo, but you are not paying me at all. My order has assumed the cost of Magda’s religious education.”

“Really, and does your order assume the cost of the vast quantities of chocolate and churros that you have consumed during your time with us?”

Don Arturo turned to Señora Rodriguez.

“For the love of God, woman, WAKE UP,” he shouted.

An explosion shook the mound of blankets, as Señora Rodriguez came to her life.

Father Martens forged on.

“Chess is an honourable game; it will develop the child’s mind. In fact, you could view it as a form of mathematics. The Arabs, you know, were instrumental in the development of both.”

“Are you presuming to give me a lesson in history?

Magda sat frozen on her chair, watching her ally fight a losing battle. The two reminded her of a picture she had seen in a children’s book. Tall and thin, dressed in his black frock coat and burdened with a slight stoop, Don Arturo was the vulture. Small and trim, Father Martens was the bantom cock who did not seem to realize the danger he was in.

“Forgive me, Don Arturo. I would never presume to teach such a learned man as yourself. Your daughter is another matter, however. Such a fine mind as hers requires stimulation.”

He did not state the obvious: that Señora Rodriguez was incapable of providing it.

“Her ‘fine mind’ as you call it will be of no use whatsoever in her future vocation. It will be a hindrance. No, Father …” he said, raising a hand,when the priest tried to intervene, “I know far more of such things than you, who have never married.”

“But such an event lies far in the future! How is the child to occupy herself in the meantime?” “Not so far in the future.

My own wife was just 15 when she came to my house.”

Unwilling to consider this possibility, Father Martens changed strategy.

“Forgive me, sir, for presuming to teach your daughter anything without your permission. When I come again, we will keep to catechism.”

Don Arturo sneered. “You will not be coming again. Señora Rodriguez will teach the child everything she needs to know.”

Magda’s and Father Martens both knew her father would not be persuaded. Picking up his hat, Father Martens headed for the door. Hand on the knob, he turned once more to Don Arturo.

“If I may be so bold, Don Arturo. There is danger in developing a queen too early.”

“Speak clearly, man,” said Don Arturo, ice dripping from his lips. “I have always deplored the clerical tendency to speak in riddles.”

But Father Martens’ small store of courage had finally deserted him. He cast Magda one last, apologetic look and slipped away. So it was that Magda learned that one could never rely on men for her defence.

Churros: These delicious morsels are made using a churrera, a pastry tube with a star-shaped nozzle. This produces the pastry’s distinctive ridges to ensure the interior cooks quickly in the hot fat, resulting in a lighter, fluffier product. Thanks to their high moisture content, churros require no leavening agent. A street food, they are often purchased en route to work as a quick breakfast along with a demi-tasse of sweet, black coffee, known as a tinto.


Mark is nothing if not inventive. Here he uses a caulking gun to pipe the churros directly into the hot fat. It was surprisingly effective!

Ingredients for the Modern Kitchen

  • 2.5 cups water
  • 1/4 cup butter..

Read the rest of the recipe here.

Join me Monday, March 14 for Chapter 3. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public 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.

This entry was posted in Arts & Culture, BC, Fun, History, Lifestyle, Local, Opinion piece, Words, World. Bookmark the permalink.

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