My Year of Living Backwards – Red Queen to White Queen, Part 13: Pinned Wings

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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
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.
****************
“Say, my name, Téodoro, say it.”

With Téo’s coastal accent, the merest slurring of syllables was enough to convert his name into the intimate “Te adoro,” I love you. Whether he was saying it, or wanted her to say it first, was still unclear to Magda.

Their mutual passion for chess was forgotten in this greater one. All their energy went into finding creative ways to elude her duenna. Señora Rodriguez was no match for the two of them, now working together. For Magda, this was almost as exciting as their growing intimacy. They developed a series of secret signals; bribed waiters to draw the old woman away; and forged notes from her father. One morning, Magda dropped into a counterfeit faint, inspiring Téo to carry her to a nearby fountain. It was there, behind a screen of palms, that Téo lay his body along the length of hers for the first time. Only Señora Rodriguez’s approaching footsteps prevented further exploration.

Evenings were spent in the lugubrious company of Don Arturo.
“Tell me daughter, how do the two of you spend your time when I am away?”

The question caught Magda by surprise. For the past week, he had not addressed a single remark to her beyond a request to pass the salt. A man of moods, Don Arturo could be silent for weeks, then suddenly address her in the most normal of tones.

A small, strangled sound diverted Magda’s attention from her father. Looking up, she saw the look of terror on her duenna’s face as she reacted to her employer’s words.

“Excuse me, Papá, I think Señora Rodriguez is choking.”

The girl leapt to her feet and forced a glass of water on the frightened woman.

“There Señora, is that better?”

Magda had her hand on the wrinkled old elbow and was pinching hard. Her duenna nodded in silence.

“I’ll escort her upstairs Papá, and return immediately.”

Magda hauled the old woman up to her room.

“Don’t even think about confessing to Papá. I’ll tell him the truth: that it was all your idea to go to both church and castle. He can’t rid himself of me: I’m his daughter. But he can certainly get rid of you.”

Leaving the duenna to contemplate her choices, Magda hurried back downstairs.

“In answer to your question, Papá, we’ve been spending our mornings in the ladies’ reading room of the Bartolomé Calvo Library. Senora Rodriguez has a list of books we’re working through.”

Magda could think of nothing more soul destroying than a list of books selected by her duenna.

“And what book were you reading today, daughter?”

A title came immediately to mind. Téo had picked up the tome that very morning, using it to prop open the window of a café where the three were breakfasting on fried plaintain and cheese.

“The Genetic Variability and Structure of the Amazonian Mosquito. Señora Rodriguez is hoping to expand my knowledge of natural history.”

“She is quite right to do so. Entomology is a healthy and appropriate subject for young girls. As a boy in Spain, I myself spent many hours capturing butterflies in my net then pinning their wings to pieces of balsa wood. I wonder where that collection is now.”

For the next hour, Magda was forced to listen to her father’s amiable musings on various insects, captured on the fly and fixed in jars of alcohol. She made sure to nod at intervals and comment appropriately. All the while her thoughts were focused on Téo’s hard young body, poised above her own.

*****

Something was bothering Téo. The two were seated in the park, listlessly pushing chess pieces around. He seemed distracted, unwilling to meet her eyes.

“What is it?” she asked, impatiently.

Téo kept his eyes on a recently captured rook, twisting it in his fingers.

“I have to go back to school.”

“So we won’t be able to meet at our usual hour?”

“We won’t be able to meet at all. My school is in Medellín.”

Something twisted in Magda’s stomach. “You’re leaving.” Magda never wasted time on questions when a clear statement of fact would do.

Téo nodded. It was a long time before he looked up, an apology in his eyes.

Magda stood up, knocking the chess board and pieces to the ground. “If you knew you were leaving, why did you let it go this far?”

The people around them were watching the scene with interest. At her feet, picking up the pieces, Téo’s answer came to her ears alone.

“I didn’t know it would go this far. At first it was a game … And then, well then I couldn’t help myself.”

It was the same answer she would have given. She knelt to help him.

“How long do we have?”

“Ten days.”

Her plan was born in a moment.

“What would make an old woman so sick that she wouldn’t care what her charge was doing?”

Téo looked at her in shock.

“Dios mío, I’m not talking about killing her, merely ensuring she lays low for awhile. Can you make some inquiries?”

Téo shook his head slowly from side to side, in the negative. Then slowly, he reversed the direction, nodding.

Magda could see he was still hesitant.

“We don’t have to decide now. Just get the information. Is there someone you can trust?”

Once again, Téo faltered; once again, he acquiesced.

****

“Have you found it?”

“No, your corset is getting in my way,” Téo was flushed. “Where’s the opening?”
Magda slapped his hand away. “I was speaking about your other investigation.”

They were alone in a carriage he had rented. Señora Rodriguez had left momentarily, in response to nature’s call.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, Magda, your father … ”

“… spends every Saturday night in Barranquilla. He has business there.”

That, at least, is what Don Arturo told Magda. She had her suspicions that it was not business at all.

Téo did not look as excited as she had hoped.

“So you didn’t get it,” she said, deflated.

Téo drew a small brown phial from his pocket.

“My cousin is a pharmacist. I told him that I … I have a friend with an eye injury, who is in terrible pain. He gave me this.”

“Did he ask any questions?”

“Of course he asked questions. And I supplied the answers. When one is forced to lie, it’s important to do it properly. I told him that my friend was trying to open a beer bottle with a fork and that the cap hit him in the eye. I said the man was screaming in pain.”

Magda was impressed.

“How ever did you think of that?”

Téo looked proud. “Did I not tell you that I mean to be a writer? I’ve been writing poetry since I was little. In fact, I’ve just begun a novel. It’s about a young man and a girl who meet on a balcony. It’s been done before, I know, but…”

“How much do we give her?” Magda was turning the phial over and over in her hands.

Téo sighed. “It depends on her weight. My cousin said it would put a grown man out of action for a couple of days. How much does Señora Rodriguez weigh?”

“How would I know? … Wait, I have an idea. There’s a public scale in the market. They charge 30 centavos a person.”

The girl poked her head out the carriage door.

“Señora Rodriguez!” she called out, as gaily as she could. “This boastful boy tells me he has an uncanny ability to guess anyone’s weight, no matter how small or large. Let’s prove him wrong shall we? Come, there’s a scale in the Portal de Dulces.”

Magda knew the effect the magic words, Portal de Dulces, would have on her duenna. She was already heaving herself up the carriage steps.

“I have no idea how much the woman weighs,” Téo whispered fiercely to Magda, as they stepped into the square. Señora Rodriguez was already far ahead.

“You don’t have to be right, you just have to get her on the scale.”

“I’d at least like to be close in my estimation. How much do you weigh?”
Magda stopped and gave him the look she used on shopkeepers, to good effect. Téo took a step back.

“Ladies never confess their weight, nor their age.”

“But you expect Señora Rodriguez to tell us.”

Magda applied the look again. She was beginning to enjoy its power.

“Señora Rodriguez is no lady: she works for a living after all. Besides, we’ll bribe her with candy.”

The duenna had already reached the market and was waiting for them.

“She probably weighs between 75 and 80 kilos. Guess low, in the region of 72 to 74. You know how susceptible she is to flattery.”

“And if I am completely off the mark? I’ll never be able to flaunt my skills in the marketplace again.”

Téo had all the imagination he would need as a writer: with the duenna on the scale, he made a great show of appealing to various saints and ancient deities for inspiration. The highly superstitious Señora Rodriguez shivered in delight. The scale’s owner looked bored at first, but straightened up when he saw the crowd Téo was drawing.

The boy looked up at the sky, as though the number were written in the clouds.

“Wait! I’m getting an answer: 72.7 kilos, no … 73.2.”

“Dios mio, apurale, hombe. Hurry up, man. Others are waiting their turn,” the owner urged, an eye already on the next gullible victim.

Two days later, all was in place. At 7:15 on Saturday morning, Magda herself delivered the tray of café con leche to her guardian’s room. making sure the drink was extra sweet to hide any bitterness. By 7:35, Señora Rodriguez’s words were beginning to slur. By 7:50, she was snoring.

Check back on Thursday, April 7 for Part 14. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.
imageSusan 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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