Red Queen to White Queen, Part 20: The Soul of the Flowers

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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 xxx
Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the familyx
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor xxx
xxx Click here for Part I.xxx
****************

The scent of flowers wafted over the ocean, filling all of Dante’s empty, sorrowing spaces.

Their scent drew Dante to the ship’s rail. They had just arrived in Barranquilla, to the same noisy confusion that prevailed on Italian docks. Far below, dark-skinned women moved with sinuous grace beneath the burden of fruit baskets on their heads. One of them looked up, laughing, as Dante gazed down at her:

“Oye, Señor! Algo fresco despues de un viaje tan largo?”

Did he want a piece of fresh fruit after his long voyage?

Dante was charmed by this place, where palm trees swayed in flower-scented breezes and lovely women shared bright laughter with a stranger.

A male voice interrupted his reverie.

“You’re Bolognese, aren’t you?”

The words were spoken in the accent of Dante’s home city. Turning away from the rail, he saw a tall, courtly man in his late 50s. Dante had seen him in the ship’s smoking room, poring over reams of paper covered with figures. More than once, the younger man had bent down to retrieve a sheet of paper that had fluttered to the floor, receiving in turn the man’s absent-minded thanks. It now seemed that the man had not been so absent-minded after all.

“Is someone meeting you here in Barranquilla?”

“No one,” Dante replied. “My plans have changed unexpectedly. I now find myself at somewhat loose ends.”

Under normal circumstances, Dante would not have revealed his situation so casually to a stranger. But these weren’t normal circumstances. With all his plans torn asunder, Dante no longer trusted his instincts.

“My brother is meeting me at the dock,” the man continued. “I have been away since January on a purchasing trip for our store, the Brothers Romano. Have you heard of it? No, I thought not.”

The older man raised himself to his full height and stretched out a hand.

“Claudio Romano, at your service.”

Dante was gratified by the old-fashioned courtliness that put the older and wealthier man at his service. In spite of their differences, the city of their birth proved an immediate bond. Another commonality was their mothers’ habit of naming first-born sons after Roman emperors. As a second son, Dante had been spared that fate. His own mother’s first born, Cesar Augusto, had died at birth. Dante had inherited his position as eldest in the family without the added burden of the name.

“We have been in this country for several decades now, my brother and I. It has treated us well; our business grows larger every year.”

The kind eyes were sizing up the young man at his side.

“We could use some help in our store.”

“My Spanish is poor, signore.”

“It’s not your Spanish I’m interested in. There are many of our countrymen living in the capital. We’re always on the lookout for sharp young men who can speak to them in Italian. My brother and I depart tomorrow morning. You can stay at our hotel, as our guest, then join us for the trip upriver.”

Don Claudio looked down at the young woman still lingering hopefully on the dock.

“I suggest an early night,” he cautioned. “Tempting as the city’s pleasures are, one takes a risk in any seaside town. We’ll fix you up with a good clean girl when we arrive in Bogotá.”

Bo-go-TAH. Dante had heard the name of the city before, but had vaguely placed it somewhere in Peru. There was one fact he did remember however.

“There’s gold in Bogotá, is there not?”

“There certainly is but we don’t pull it out of the ground. Our business is not nearly so labour intensive.”

Dante cast one fleeting glance of regret at the quay, before he was hustled off to meet the brother and help with the bags. Don Claudio insisted on covering all expenses.

“You’re in my employ now and you’ll find that I treat my employees well.”

****

Dante spent the night comfortably ensconced between clean sheets. He wondered if he should seek out a ship’s captain to convey a letter to his family. Fear held him back: his seven brothers would consider his mid-ocean mistake a great joke, spreading the news far and wide; and his mother would worry far more than she was doing now. Far better, he decided, to wait and formulate a plan. The brothers Romano clearly maintained close ties with Italy. Dante could send a letter once he was established in the capital. Perhaps one day, he might even accompany Don Claudio to Italy on one of his buying trips. Having arrived at this solution, Dante plumped up his pillow, turned on his side, and went straight to sleep.

The three men breakfasted on fried plantain, eggs and black coffee heavily laced with sugar. Immediately afterwards, they boarded the riverboat, to advance up the mighty Magdalena delta.

“We’ll ride this river for over 700 kilometres,” explained Don Claudio, as proudly as though he had created it. The older man’s pride in his adopted country did much to shape Dante’s own attitude.

Dante never tired of watching the life on the river. For the first few days, they moved through rainforest. The sound of the ship’s steam whistle startled the parakeets in the trees, causing them to swoop out of the jungle in a wild, screeching blaze of colour.

Men paddling beside the boat in dugout canoes known as piraguas reached up to offer fresh coconut milk, still encased in its green gourd. The cool, refreshing milk was more delightful still when Don Cosimo added a splash of dark Cuban rum.

One vendor especially caught Dante’s attention. Seated on his shoulder was a tiny monkey, no bigger than a handspan. From the rail, Dante looked down upon the animal that gazed up at him. In its eyes, he sensed a pathetic appeal, as if the creature were begging to be taken along. Its ringed tail was curved protectively around its body.

“Veinte centavos, senor.” Twenty cents.

Dante could have sworn he saw tears pooling in the corner of the tiny creature’s enormous eyes, as it looked up at him. It could make the entire journey nestled comfortably in his pocket.

“Oh no, my boy. You don’t want that.”

Don Claudio was at his elbow. Dante turned, embarrassed at having considered the purchase without consulting his benefactor.

“My brother and I had one as a pet for a number of years. Even now, long after its death, the wicked felon haunts my dreams.”

Dante did not wish to doubt Don Claudio, who until now had spoken nothing but truth; but looking down upon the miniscule creature, he guessed the man was exaggerating.

“How much harm can such a tiny thing possibly do?”

“You only have to awaken once with sharp teeth embedded deep in your bare toe to answer that question, my boy. If that doesn’t convince you, how about monkey feces left on your morning toast, as you turn to the sideboard for a second cup of coffee? Or perhaps you prefer to see it pleasuring itself just behind your right shoulder, as you converse with the neighbourhood matriarch over morning chocolate? There’s only one person, in my experience, who can tame such a demon; but she, of course, is blessed with special powers.”

“Is she a witch?”

“Not exactly.”

Putting a fatherly arm around Dante’s shoulder, Don Claudio led him away from the ship’s rail.

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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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