My Year of Living Backwards- Red Queen to White Queen, Part 8: Horses & Grooms


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:

Magdalene (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

Señora Moreno: Family friend of long standing

Desiderio: Magda’s son

Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the family

Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor


Don Claudio stripped the plain brown paper from the package and stared at the canvas. Magda had presented him with the gift via their usual mode of communication: the open window. It was the week before Christmas, a full calendar year after he had presented her with the paint box and easel. xxx

Claudio fancied himself as something of an art connoisseur. At intervals along his staircase were a number of horse-and-groom paintings, all purchased at significant expense. He was at a loss over what to do with Magda`s gift. Sitting at the breakfast table, he twisted it this way and that, trying to ascertain which was the head and which the foot. Propping it against the water jug on the sideboard, he waited for Cosimo to appear and render his opinion.

The light from the window teased out the vivid blues and greens of the painting. Magda`s work was not restful to gaze upon. In fact, it was quite the opposite. As he sat drinking his cup of café con leche and savouring the aroma of sausage wafting in from the kitchen, Claudio felt strangely exhilarated, as if he could do great things with the day that lay before him. All at once, he was a young boy in his mother’s home, with the whole world right outside his breakfast window — crying out to be explored. Lost in reverie, he did not hear his brother enter the room.

“Claudio. Claudio!”

“Ah, there you are, Cosimo.”

“I just asked you for a spoon.”

“Certainly, take this one.”

“That`s a butter knife.”

“So it is. Here`s a spoon.”

“That one is dirty. What’s the matter with you this morning? And what is that?”

“Hmmm?” Claudio was thinking that, just this once, he might close his office and spend the day at the horse auction.


“Forgive me, Cosimo. I was planning my work at the office. You were saying?”

“What is that colourful thing on the sideboard?”

“Oh, yes. That`s a Christmas gift from Magda. I was waiting for you to tell me which end is up and where we might hang it.”

“I’m afraid I can`t answer either question. I doubt it will fit in among your pantheon of horses and grooms.”

Turning it over and over in his hands, Don Cosimo at last spotted a tiny, scripted “M” in what they assumed was the lower, right-hand corner of the painting. They decided to hang it in the small vestibule where the umbrella rack stood. In the days that followed, before heading out into Bogota`s weather, Don Claudio experienced the same tug of excitement as he contemplated the day ahead. xxx

It was there that Don Felipe Otero first saw the painting. He had been invited to their home for one of the brothers` infrequent card parties.

“You didn’t tell me, Claudio, that you are a connoisseur,” he said later, over cigars and coffee.

“Ah, you saw my paintings.”

“Perhaps not all, but there is one I particularly admire.”

“Let me guess: the one of the grey gelding, with the young groom in profile. That is one of my own favourites.”

Don Felipe looked perplexed. Claudio tried again.

“Or perhaps the grouping of mares and foals, with the groom leaning on the fence.”

“I was referring to the painting in the vestibule.”

“You are mistaken, my friend. There are no paintings of horses and grooms in the vestibule.”

Don Felipe grew exceedingly patient, as one does with very young children.

“I was referring to the painting above the umbrella stand. Quite the investment I presume?”

Claudio chuckled. “No more than the price of a paint box and easel.”

Don Felipe`s eyes opened wide in surprise. “I’m impressed, Claudio. Your talent has been a well kept secret.”

Claudio did not wish to humiliate the man by telling him that the painting was the work of a child —and a female child at that.

“Actually, it…was painted by a friend of mine.”

“Then he must have studied in Europe, and quite recently too. To date, there has been no significant appearance of art nouveau here in Colombia.”

“It’s a she actually.”

“Indeed. A woman? What is the artist’s name?”

Claudio thought fast.

“She prefers to remain anonymous. Family pride, you know. She is known only as “M.”

Don Felipe nodded: “She was lucky to escape the fate of most talented females in Colombia. My own sister showed great promise as a child, far more than I myself possessed. That all ended when she became a novice with the Sisters of Maria at the age of 17. From that time on, she produced nothing more inspired than a series of dreary religious icons and embroidered altar cloths. It is my sad task to find markets for her work, and those of her students, to help raise funds for the school.”

Later that evening, Don Felipe took one last look at the painting before retrieving his umbrella from the stand. “If any more of her work comes on the market, I would appreciate hearing about it.”

For two full years afterwards, Don Claudio was forced to invent one lie after another, to explain why no further works were forthcoming from the talented new artist. He was relieved when Don Arturo took Magda and her duenna to the coast for an extended period. He could then say, with perfect truth, that the artist had left the area and would not be returning any time soon.


Cafe con leche (pronounced kafey kon leychay)

This is far more than the simple ‘coffee with milk’ as we know it in North America. This version is made with instant coffee (suspend judgement until you try it!) According to Wikipedia, soluble coffee was invented in 1881 and marketed commercially by 1910.

The milk is heated until it begins to foam, then simply poured over the coffee powder, resulting in an easy, homemade latte. Sprinkle a little nutmeg on top. Delicious!

Ingredients for the Modern Kitchen

  • Add 1 tsp. or more instant coffee to a cup.
  • Add sugar if desired.
  • Heat the milk until it begins to foam. Watch carefully and remove from heat the second the milk begins to creep up the sides of the pan.
  • Remove immediately from the heat and pour onto the coffee.
  • Stir from the bottom of the cup, taking care not to disturb the foam on the top.
  • Sprinkle with nutmeg and enjoy?


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, Fun, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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