Red Queen to White Queen, Part 21: Caiman & Capybara

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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

 Click here for Part I.
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The stream-driven paddle boat ran day and night. At first, Dante’s sleep was disturbed by the fear the boat might run aground on a rock or snag, a common sight during daylight hours. It was not long, however, before he developed full confidence in the captain’s skill, or memory.

Dante was entranced by the scenery passing before his eyes. All along the bank, basking crocodiles known as caiman, splashed into the water as the boat approached. Only their eyes were visible above the water line.

“Bam!”
The air was shattered by a shot, followed immediately by a splash. Dante looked over his shoulder to see one of the passengers at the rail, rifle in hand.
“Missed it by a hair.”
Before Dante could comment, the man raised his rifle to his shoulder once more. Dante resisted the urge to cover his ears.

This time, the bullet found its mark. The beast splashed for a moment, staining the water bright red. Dante felt sick.

“How will you retrieve it?” he asked.

“Impossible,” said the shooter. “The captain has no intention of stopping this boat for a caiman: we’re already behind schedule. Besides, what on earth would I do with it? The river people will collect it. Good meat for them.”

The man took a long drag on his cheroot then blew the chocolate-scented smoke to a spot just above Dante’s head. “The natives used to hunt them themselves with spear and piragua. Damn dangerous business. These days, they just wait for us to nab them then paddle along to collect their prize.”

The man reloaded his rifle.

“I’ve had women approach me in tears, begging me to rid them of the beast. In the old days, they’d lose one or two women every year.”

Dante was horrified. “How?”

“Washing clothes in the river. It doesn’t have much of a brain, the caiman, but it’s damned clever at telling time. They’ll spend all day studying the women’s habits. Every washday, just before the women appear, they’ll lurk below the surface. Anyone who strays too close will be taken. They especially like the young ones: the bones are easier to crunch and the meat more tender.”

Dante thought he’d prefer to go without clean clothes.

“You’re wondering why they take such a risk. You’ll learn that one can become dangerously inured to the risks of Colombian life. In the eastern plains, the women wash the clothes in rivers infested with piranha. It’s fairly safe as long as none of the women are bleeding. On cattle drives, they sacrifice the scrawniest cow about a kilometre downstream. Its blood attracts the fish: once they’re in a feeding frenzy, the men drive the cattle across.”

To Dante’s surprise, the man held out the rifle.

“Care to try?”

“I’m not much of a shot.” This was an exaggeration. City-bred Dante was no shot at all.
“You’re from Italy, aren’t you? I’m Barranquilla born myself. Dr. Alejandro Jiménez, at your service. I’m a physician and this…” The man stretched out a hand toward the river. “This is my practice. Your name, sir?”

Dante stretched out his palm for a handshake.

“Dante Fontana.”

Instead of taking Dante’s hand, the man placed his rifle into it.

“Here, give it a try. It’s all loaded. All you have to do is settle it into your shoulder, cock it, and point,” he said, demonstrating.

Dante gazed out over the river. There wasn’t even a ripple on the surface of the water to indicate the animal’s presence.

“Watch for the bubbles,” said the man at his side.

It didn’t take long to spot them in the calm river.

“Take your time. Aim for the neck.”

The bullet hit its mark so cleanly there was not even a splash. Dante watched in amazement as the beast slipped below the surface of the water.

From then on, it became common practice for Dante to join the small clump of men engaged in target practice. Dante never repeated the success of his first day; but by the time he left the ship, he was familiar with all the intricacies of holding, loading, and firing a rifle.

“Won’t be much call for that in Bogotá, I’m afraid,” said Don Claudio one morning, as they breakfasted on plantain and farmer’s cheese. “Sometimes the young men organize hunting trips to the plains, to shoot the large rodents known here as capybara. Perhaps you can join them.”

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As they penetrated deeper into the country, the vegetation changed from rainforest to a hot, dry land filled with flowers and fruit. Beyond lay alpine slopes and meadows of wildflowers. Their journey would end in the very heart of Colombia, where snow-capped mountains hovered protectively over long, grassy savannahs.

Right: Capybara grow up to 62 cm tall
& can weigh upwards of 66 k.

Dante was less entranced with the mosquitoes that appeared at dusk, wave upon wave of them. The passengers fled the deck for the saloon, where small, dark-skinned boys waited with palmetto fans. Labour was so freely available here that one person was often assigned a single task. Dante wondered where the boys disappeared to during daylight hours. Like the mosquitoes they appeared only at dusk and vanished at daybreak.

“They are descended from the African peoples,” explained Don Claudio. “The Spaniards began by enslaving the original inhabitants. One after another, they’d descend into the mines, only to be hauled out as dead bodies. They died in the mines, they died in the fields, they died in the kitchens. In the end, the sheer number of dead forced the Spanish to seek another solution.”

Don Claudio shook his head at this shameful stain on the history of his adopted land. At the same time, he leaned closer to the small boy, who leapt to light his cigar. Being waited upon, Dante discovered, was something one quickly grew used to, even as one pondered the inequality of man.

Recipe: Fried Green Plantain with Feta

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Patacon Pisao

In Colombia, fried green plantains are often eaten for breakfast, usually accompanied by white farmer’s cheese. I use feta, as the cheese most similar in taste. On the coast, the dish is referred to as Patacón Pisao (“pisao” meaning “stomped on” or flattened).

Ingredients:

3-4 large, very green plaintains
Oil for frying
Vinegar (1/4 cup), salt (1 tsp.), sugar (1 T.)
Feta cheese
Try it with Aji  (click here for shopping info), as a garnish

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Method:

Peel the plantains then cut on the diagonal into chunks of approximately 3-4 inches in length.
Fry the chunks in hot oil until golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towel.
Squash each piece between two small plates, until you have a flat disk.

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Check back on Thursday, May 5 for Part 22. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.

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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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