My Year of Living Backwards – Red Queen to White Queen, Part 7: The Queen’s Gambit


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

Father Martens did not return to the house; with the help of Don Claudio, he did manage to smuggle in the miniature chess set. At first, Magda tried to teach Señora Rodriguez to play, but the women’s mind was too dull. She then tried playing both sides, but quickly discovered she needed another mind against which to pit herself.

She found it by accident while reading the Sunday newspaper. This was another activity she had to do in secret: her father did not approve of young girls reading the lurid details of the latest scandals. Every Monday morning, she crept into the library to pour over its pages. It was there she discovered the serial chess game. Each week, the columnist published a single move: he might, for example, open with the Queen’s Gambit, d4 d5. On subsequent weeks, one counter move was selected from among the dozens that poured in.

The columnist did not suspect that his most frequent and dedicated opponent was a nine-year-old girl. She set up the game in her bedroom, studying the pieces as she brushed her hair or polished her shoes. That board was the first thing she gazed upon each morning and the last thing she saw at night.

The girl’s ravenous mind was still not content. On fine days, she pulled Señora Rodriguez to the park, where a number of chess boards were set up under the acacia trees. To the end of her life, Magda would recall their scent: rich notes of citrus and vanilla mingling with the cigar smoke of the men who sat hunched over the pieces. Other children would skip up to the games, watch for a moment, and then dance away. Only Magda remained, an intent and silent watcher. Many players resented her presence.

“Run away, little girl. I can’t think with you breathing so loudly.”

Magda moderated even her breathing when she found two players who would tolerate her. Very rarely, a player whispered to her the reasons for his move.

No women played chess in public. It therefore caused a minor scandal when one of the younger players stood and gallantly waved the little girl into his chair. His opponent threw his hands into the air:

“Hombre! Que estas haciendo?” What are you doing, man?

“Afraid of a little girl, are you? That she’ll beat you?”

“I have better things to do than waste my time with a child.”

Having at last seized her chance, Magda was not to be bullied out of it so easily. Black eyes staring intently at her opponent, she held her guard. She had known what her move would be long before she took her seat, and she made it now. Her opponent, who had risen from his chair, quickly sat down again.

It took a long time for him to make his next move. It was a mistake; Magda neatly captured his bishop. By now, an amused crowd was beginning to gather.

“Ven, mira a la niña!” Come, look at the little girl.

Señora Rodriguez had managed to push her way into the crowd and was nervously plucking at Magda’s sleeve.

“Come, child. We must leave before your father hears of it. A crowd this size…”

Torn between two possible moves, Magda shrugged off the old woman’s hand. She looked up only when another, larger hand seized her wrist.

“Come child, this is not the place for you.”

“Dejela, hombre.” Leave her, the crowd moaned.

“The child’s duenna herself asked me to intervene. Her father would not wish it,” the policeman explained. The male crowd nodded. Even from afar, a father’s wish must be respected. As the policeman led her away, a few clapped in appreciation of her skill. Seething with fury, Magda did not speak to her duenna for the rest of that day, nor for two full days afterward.

Alone in her room, Magda shifted the canvas this way and that against on the wide window ledge, trying to find exactly the right light. She had chosen this room for its silvery northern exposure. Her father would have scoffed at such an idea. To explain the move, she told him that Señora Rodriguez’s snoring kept her awake at night.

The combination paint-box-and-easel was a Christmas present from Don Claudio. Her father had turned up his nose at the gift: a good sturdy coat would have done more to alleviate the great expense involved in bringing up a child. Afraid her father might confiscate the box and canvases for resale, Magda found a hiding place for them under her bed — right beside the chess set. It was not long before art joined chess as the two great passions of her life.

As Magda fussed with the canvas, there was a barely audible tap on her door. Don Arturo did not believe in abusing the woodwork.

“You can open the door, Magda. It’s your Papá.”

“One moment, please Papá, I’m just hanging up my towel.” Magda hastily poured some water into the basin on her bureau and whisked in some soap. She knew her father would wait patiently outside the door until she opened it: a lady, he said, deserved privacy when performing her ablutions.

Moving quickly, but without any sense of panic, the girl restored the canvas to its hiding place. Don Arturo did not concern himself with probing the contents of Magda’s room. He left such tasks to the judgment of Señora Rodriguez. The girl had already told the old woman that she would put mice droppings in her bed if she ever touched Magda’s art.

“That window should be closed,” her father said immediately upon entering. “The stove is lit downstairs, and I have no wish to heat the entire outdoors.”

“Of course, Papá. I was just about to close it when you knocked. I thought it was more important to be properly dressed when I received you.”

Her father nodded. When his daughter was involved, his concern for the proprieties trumped even his famous parsimony. Already, at the age of 12, Magda had an acute understanding of the term “investment.”

In spite of everything, Magda loved her father. There was simply no one else. Señora Rodriguez was too slow-witted. Don Claudio, though useful, skimmed like a butterfly across a wide range of conversational gambits, never alighting on one long enough to truly engage the girl. On rare occasions, and entirely for his own amusement, her father provided some of the stimulation she craved. Their conversation was confined to matters of a purely cerebral nature. Magda was able to cite the benefits of moving from an agricultural to an industrial mode of production, and assess the value of foreign investment in the Colombian economy. There was, however, no one to explain the changes taking place in her own body or delve into matters of the heart.

“Señora Rodriguez informed me that you wish to see me.

Yes, I do. I have a request.”

Don Arturo remained standing. It was the hour of his regular evening engagement, and he was anxious to be off.

“Well, what is it child?”

Magda took a deep breath.

“I’ve been thinking, Papá, that I’d like to go to school.”

There, she had said it. Magda looked down at the floor. She could almost see the request lying there, at their feet. Don Arturo may have envisioned it as well, for he too looked down for a long moment. Magda did not know if he was seriously considering the idea, or just giving the appearance of doing so.

Taking a breath, Magda continued. “It’s the Colegio de la Enseñanza, run by the Sisters of Maria. Their motto is Whosoever educates a woman, educates a family.”

As Magda was well aware, such a curriculum would advance her father’s goal for her: matrimony, into one of Bogotá’s finest families. She, however, had other ambitions. Magda knew that painting was also on the school curriculum. Instruction in art, even when confined to religious icons, was something she craved.

“But that is the most exclusive school in Bogota! I tremble to think what the tuition might cost me.”

“Forty pesos a year, including board. How much does Señora Rodriguez’s room, board, and clothing cost?” she asked, easily and without conscience dispensing with the woman who had raised her since babyhood.

She saw the flare of interest in her father’s eyes, as he performed a swift calculation. She could almost hear the clicking of his mind as it ran down the two columns of figures. She stood confidently waiting: she had performed the same calculations and knew their outcome. She would be starting school that very September, only a month away.

“That school costs far more than Señora Rodriguez.”

Magda’s confidence collapsed at her feet.

“But Papá, how can that be? Why the food alone…you know how much she eats!”

“Lower your voice, child. It is not seemly for a young lady to shout,” her father said calmly, his hand on the door knob.

Magda bit her lip to still the words that stood waiting to spill out. She would not give up so easily.

“Can you share the figures with me, Papá? Señora Rodriguez is so slow in arithmetic. I rarely get the chance to work out a real problem.”

Once again, she had caught his interest. Don Arturo backed away from the door, to perch on the little cane chair beside her dresser.

“It is good for you to know such things, my child. One day you will be mistress of your own household and answerable to your husband for your expenditures.”

Gifted with a brain as quick as any man’s, Magda choked down the anger his condescension evoked. She knew that any sign of emotion would end the discussion—and with it, her hopes of going to school.

“The school costs 40 pesos a year, and Señora Rodriguez —accounting for food, clothing, and various sundry items—costs me approximately 60 pesos a year.”

Magda felt a surge of relief.

“So the school is far less expensive,” she said, striving to keep any note of victory from her voice.

“Not so,” her father replied. “I would still have to retain a duenna for you. You would be a day student, as I understand it, at home every evening and on weekends?”

She nodded, a lump forming miserably in her throat.

“And then there are the holidays, including the long summer vacation. That would cost…” Again, the blank look as he retreated into his mind once more, to separate the holiday figures out from the total.

“But I don’t need a duenna, Papá, at my age…”

“At your age is exactly when you do need her,” her father thundered, rising so quickly that the small cane chair toppled over. She backed away from the temper that came infrequently, its very unpredictably rendering it dangerous.

“I will not feed a servant to sit at home all day while you are at school. I don’t get my full money’s worth out of the woman as it is.”

Magda quickly backed away from his now wildly thrashing walking stick. While she knew he would not hit her deliberately, it was best to stay well out of range.

The circles the stick traced in the air became less erratic as Don Arturo’s anger burnt itself out. Once again he grasped the door knob, then turned to his daughter.

“We will not discuss this subject again.”

“No, Papá.”

Magda sat listening as his steps descended the wooden staircase. Señora Rodriguez appeared cautiously in the door frame.

“El señor. He..he is gone?”

“Yes, yes he is. You can come in now.”

“I heard my name.”

“It was nothing. You are safe. He was concerned about the expense of keeping you on, but I defended you. I told him that a woman your age cannot be thrown into the street.”

Señora Rodriguez threw herself at Magda’s feet, her tears blubbering over the girl’s hand. Above her, Magda’s eyes glowed hard and black. Her attempt to sacrifice a rook had failed. There in the darkness she sat pondering her next move.

Join me on Thursday, March 17, for Chapter 3. 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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