My Year of Living Backwards – Red Queen to White Queen, Part 9: Flowers on the Wind


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 xxx

Click here for Part I.

It was too hot to paint, too hot to do anything really. Magda leaned out the hotel window as far as she dared, hoping to catch an ocean breeze. Feeling a few cooling drops on her nose, she looked up at the sky: cloudless. It was then she realized that the drops were her own sweat, falling from the fringe of hair above her brow.

Bogotá’s interminable rain had finally become too much for Don Arturo’s weak chest. For the past three years, Magda had trailed after her father from one dusty, coastal town to another. Don Arturo considered the larger towns to be too expensive; nor did he wish to expose his daughter to the contamination of society. Now on the eve of her 17th birthday, it would not be long before he handed her over to the unknown man who would accept responsibility for her upkeep. He was determined to deliver her in a pure state, knowing nothing of the world or of men. Her husband would quickly teach her everything she needed to know.

Since leaving the capital, they had lived in a long series of houses, with little to distinguish one from the other: each was a whitewashed stucco dwelling with an inner patio, a roof constructed of red clay tiles, and high outer walls swathed in bougainvillea. No one could see in; it was difficult to see out.

Magda had painted bougainvillea in every conceivable form and from every imaginable angle, until she captured the very soul of the flower. As the bright colours in her paint box shrank away to nothing, her work grew ever more somber. Where there had once been a riotous confusion of purples, pinks, and oranges, she now painted a single, bright bloom among dark green leaves. When left with only the darker pigments, she set up her easel ever later in the day, when the shadows were longer and the light more gloomy. Painting at dusk, she was able to capture the flowers’ outlines in deep blues and blacks. When the paint finally ran out, the soul of the flowers seemed to go with it. Despondent, she put aside her easel and mourned the blooms as she would a lover.

The dust, heat, and boredom had an unfortunate effect on her temper. Her sole diversion now was her daily walk through the village with the plodding Señora Rodriguez. Magda strode several metres in front, snapping at her duenna, who pleaded with her to slow down. The girl carried a black umbrella to protect her from the sun while her face was hidden behind a dark, nearly opaque veil and her hands were encased in black lace gloves. Dark, crepe skirts were held down by lead weights sewn into their hems by Senora Rodriguez, at her father’s insistence. Don Arturo feared the strong coastal winds might offer a sudden glimpse of young, white leg.

Magda knew that she and her duenna looked like two crows, but who would care? The only men they saw were fishermen. The two women sometimes stopped to watch as they grasped the net firmly in their teeth then flung it in an arc high over the water, where it settled like a flower. If one of the young men happened to look up, he was soon reprimanded by a father or uncle. They knew Don Arturo would not hesitate to shoot anyone who ventured too close to his daughter.

The gloom of Magda’s life might have overcome even her rebellious spirit, were it not for two events. A week before her 17th birthday, an envelope came from Don Claudio. Forwarded from post office to post office, it arrived in sorry state, with edges crumpled and almost entirely covered by the scribbling of successive post-office clerks. Don Arturo had made her read both card and letter aloud. Hearing nothing more than an innocent account of the mico leon, he quickly lost interest. Señora Rodriguez timidly suggested that Magda write a return letter of thanks, then descended to the kitchen to beg a tidbit from the cook.

As Magda scanned the letter once more, she noticed that the second page was actually two pages glued together. Seizing a knife, she carefully slit it apart then shook out several bank notes: five pesos! Here, at last, was the opportunity to buy more paint. Taking up her pen, she tried to convey her thanks to Don Claudio in a way that would escape her father’s notice. Outwitting him proved a most diverting way of spending the afternoon. xxx

To the Esteemed and Honourable Don Claudio Romano 


It is my pleasure and duty to thank you for the kind birthday wishes. I especially enjoyed the paragraphs detailing the adventures of my dear mico leon. How I miss him! Coincidentally, I was in the market several days ago and saw a painting that resembled him somewhat, although the colours were wrong. Unfortunately, the artist had relied too heavily on the darker pigments, with none of the gold shades common to this monkey. When I mentioned this to the vendor, she told me that deep brown and black were the only two colours left in his paint box. Since then, she informed me, the artist has received a windfall of five pesos and will soon be producing work that is more true to life.

Cordial salutations,
Magda Cordova 

P.S. I’m sorry to hear that your friend was so foolish as to be bitten. In future, you must warn the gentlemen at your card parties not to tease the monkey by eating pistachios in his presence.

The second event to disturb the dreary tread of Magda’s life was her father’s decision to travel to Cartagena, to meet with his bank manager. Magda had lost all hope of visiting that fabled city of gold: it was from these shores, with their sugared sands and rows of palm trees, that all the bullion of the Americas had been loaded onto ships bound for Spain.

So it was that Magda found herself leaning far out her hotel window, in hopes of catching a stray breeze. She was not permitted to venture so far as the balcony, fringed with hanging baskets. It was from these balconies, a hundred years before, that the city’s Creole daughters awaited their first glimpse of the ships bearing the young sons of Spain. The men on those ships smelled the city’s tropical flowers long before they sighted land. Magda was equally overwhelmed by their scent. As she stood at her window, watching the waves break upon the coral, it seemed that the scent of every flower in the world was being borne to her on the wind.

image“Oye! Chica!”

Magda looked down at the young man in the street below. He was dressed all in white, the sole exceptions being his yellow straw hat and the scarlet flower pinned jauntily to his lapel. Another young woman might have retreated in maidenly modesty, or called out to the young man below. Magda did neither. Her artist’s eye captured the entire scene at once: the blazing white of the stucco buildings, all sharp angles and geometric shadows; the clashing hues of red brick cobblestones and scarlet flower; the white suit and white teeth of the young man before her. Only a few bold, black strokes were needed to outline the buildings and the rough shape of his body; another black swipe or two for his hair and small, smart moustache; a few splashes of carmine; and a single ovoid stroke of yellow for the hat. Absorbed in the vision, she leaned closer.

“Wait, I’m coming up.”

Up? Magda knew he would never get past the vigilant front desk clerk, who took his orders from her father. Beyond him was her duenna, less formidable than the clerk but with more to lose. Knowing the young man would never get closer to her than he was at this moment, she laughed down at him.

Her laughter froze when she saw his intentions. Grasping at the vines growing along the wall, the young man was able to reach the rungs of the small balcony just outside her window. From there, it was a few easy steps to her room.

Magda was trapped. She could not run into the room, where her duenna lay dozing. Were the young man to be caught, her father would have him arrested, or worse; Magda, in turn, would be blamed for enticing him. With no desire to see her freedom restricted even further, she tried to close the shutters, but they were sticky from long disuse. She considered prying his hands from the balcony but doubted she had the strength. In the end, she could only stand frozen in place.

Safely perched on the outside of the balcony, the young man clung to it with one hand, while lifting his hat with the other:

“Téodoro Gaviria Restrepo, at your service madam.”

Click here for Part 10. 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.


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