My Year Living Backwards- Red Queen to White Queen, Part 11: Street of the Tumbling Dead


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
Téodoro, or Téo (TAY oh): A young man of Magda’s own age, from Cartagena
Click here for Part I.

Magda’s move had been planned long in advance and she made it now. There was a quick intake of breath from the man behind her.

Téo took his time over the pieces. Magda had no need to contemplate her own strategy; nor would she look at Téo, who had already been encouraged enough. Instead, she raised her eyes to the surrounding architecture. People flocked onto their balconies, drawn first by the man’s shouts then kept there by the spectacle of a female chess player. Some had dragged out chairs while others hung far over the railing for a better view; children peered through the slats.

“Senorita Magda, this is a mistake. Your father…”

Magda ignored her. There would be no policeman to stop her this time. A 17-year-old woman could not be dragged away like a child.

The birdlike chatter from the balconies ceased as Téo made his move. Magda leaned forward. His choice was the most daring among the several she had predicted. She pretended to contemplate her options: it would not do for him to know how carefully she had planned her strategy in advance.

Téo, in the meantime, sat whispering to Señora Rodriguez, so as not to disturb the girl. Magda did not miss a word.

“Have you heard how Calle de Tumbamuertos got its name?” he asked the old woman.

Magda had wondered why the avenue was known as the Street of the Tumbling Dead.

“It dates back to a plague that attacked the city, when every house had its corpse. Until then, it was known as the Street of Our Lady of Pópolo, quite a good name on its own, don’t you agree?”

Flattered by the attention, Señora Rodriguez nodded. Magda was revolted, Téo encouraged.

“The street led uphill to one of the cemeteries. Its cobblestones were uneven, shaking the carts that bore the dead. More often than not, they fell off.”

Magda imagined the street littered with dead bodies. She was intrigued by the idea.

“We saw the skeleton of Saint Pedro Claver just yesterday morning,” said Señora Rodriguez.

“Ah yes, a fine old cadaver, in a fine old cathedral,” Téo replied. “My own family worships in the Church of Santo Domingo.” The boy was clearly determined to win the old woman’s favour. “Have you heard the story of the devil and the church tower?”

Señora Rodriguez made the sign of the cross, her superstitious nature battling with her love of all things macabre. The latter won out, and the young man went on with his story.

“The church had burned to the ground in the great fire of 1552,” said Téo, as confident of the date as though it were just yesterday. “The people rebuilt it with their own hands. Then just as the tower was complete, the devil appeared in a rage at seeing the church rebuilt. He smacked the tower with his tail.”

“Did it tumble?” Señora Rodriguez asked in a whisper. Magda turned away from the naïve old crone in disgust.

“That’s the amazing thing,” said Téo. “The people, in their simple faith, had constructed a tower that not even the devil could topple. He was so enraged that he jumped into a nearby well.”

Teo leaned closer toward the old woman. “From that time on, the waters of that well have reeked of sulphur.”

Señora Rodriguez shivered in delight.

“An interesting fairy tale,” said Magda, capturing his castle. A chorus of whispered twitters erupted in the balconies above.

The young man’s eyelid flickered at the loss of his piece, but he continued with his story.

“The church tower remains crooked to this very day. We’ll go see it tomorrow if you like.”

He was turning out to be quite the guide, thought Magda. Her guardian was clearly tempted.

With the loss of his castle, Téo ceased all chatter, to focus on the game. They sat there until the shadows lengthened. Reluctantly, the spectators folded their chairs and retreated inside to prepare their evening meal. Neither Magda nor Téo emerged as the clear victor. He had surprised her a number of times, with moves that were new to her. Once, she laughed up at him, in response to a particularly audacious ploy. She stopped abruptly when she saw the admiration is his eyes—admiration that had nothing to do with the game.

“Señorita Magda, your father arrives at 5.”

Magda jumped up, startled at the lateness of the hour.

“You will come tomorrow?”

“No. No, I cannot. But I thank you, señor, it’s been a … pleasure.”

Téo committed the layout to memory, then swept pieces and board into the brighty woven bag he carried at his side.

“Then I will escort you to your hotel. These streets can be dangerous for two women travelling alone.”

Señora Rodriguez threw Magda an alarmed glance. The old lady had been more than willing to accept his arm in the park; showing up at the hotel with a young man at their side was quite another matter. Nor were the two women in any real danger: the worst they might encounter were clever pickpockets and neither carried more than a few centavos on her person. Their few pieces of good jewelry had been left with Don Arturo, who kept them in a bag tied securely around his waist.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, señor,” said Magda, so fiercely that Téo stepped back. He bowed his head to each woman in turn.

The moment they were alone, Señora Rodriguez caught Magda’s arm in a fierce grip.

“How did he know we were staying at a hotel?”

“By our accents. We are clearly Cachachas.”

That morning, Magda told her guardian that she was suffering from a headache and would not be leaving her room.

“Of course you are ill,” said the duenna, her relief palpable. “Women are not made to wrack their brains over mathematical problems. I rue the day Father Martens came to your house.”

It frustrated the active young woman to pretend to a headache, especially in such a stifling room. The moment the duenna closed her eyes in a mid-morning nap, Magda descended to the front desk for some ice.

“Excuse me, señorita. A gamin left this note for you. Normally, I would not pass on a note from a street urchin, but this one is sealed and written on fine paper. I assume it is from your father. He left quite early this morning.”

Magda knew what it was before she opened it: Téo’s next move.

Check back on Thursday, March 31 for Part 12. 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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