Red Queen to White Queen, Part 22: The Donkey Train

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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
****************

As the voyage progressed, Dante discovered the truth of Don Claudio’s words: “If you tire of the weather in Colombia, just move up—or down—the mountain.”
They began their journey in the intense humidity of the rainforest. Each night, Dante hurried to undress, then dove for the protection of the mosquito net. No matter how carefully he fastened it, a single mosquito always managed to penetrate beneath the net, where it feasted on his blood throughout the night. Dante had his revenge at dawn: swollen to twice its normal size and weaving drunkenly, the monster was vulnerable to a single blow. It was a hollow victory for Dante, whose skin bore the ravages of the nightly battles. Fortunately, his blood grew accustomed to the demon’s poison. The nightly visitors could, and did, drink as much as they liked. Dante snored on.

As the boat penetrated into the interior, the people’s skin tones and bone structure changed. Those of African descent became increasingly rare. The residents now bore the features of the land’s original inhabitants: Arhuacos, Muisca, Pijao, and Yanacona, to name a few. These had intermarried with the Spanish invaders who came for gold and stayed on to carve plantations out of the jungle. Sea-faring Basques arrived with the Spanish and soon came to dominate every aspect of Colombian life. Traders from Lebanon peddled goods from the coast to towns deep in the interior. And in almost every village, there was an Englishman, German, or Scandinavian. Younger sons of privileged European families, they drifted into town to make their fortune in cattle, gold, or trade.

Still in the state of chastity imposed by Don Claudio, Dante was dazzled by the women, whose skin tones ranged from deepest coffee to delicate caramel to creamy café au lait. It was a veritable Eden, with a multitude of Eve’s.

Each night on the boat, Dante watched as the men played poker. Gold coins changed hands quickly. One man even threw a fine gold watch onto the pile.

“If I ever own a watch like that, I will not be so foolish as to risk it in a poker game,” he confided to Don Claudio. “I will pass it on to my son.”

The more time Dante spent with the brothers, the more he saw to admire. He and Don Claudio spent their afternoons on deck, chatting and smoking, as the older dispensed his wisdom to the younger. Cosimo was the quieter and more watchful of the two. Little escaped his eye. He was especially alert to the vendors who boarded the boat at every village. They tended to work in twos: one displaying the wares, while the other scanned the boat for stray possessions. More than once, Dante saw Don Cosimo grab a man by his collar and forcibly walk him to the gangplank.

Don Cosimo also kept a paternal eye on Dante. When the young man reached for a coin to pay a vendor, Don Cosimo caught his eye and shook his head, as a silent signal to offer a smaller denomination. When a flirtation became too heated, Don Cosimo would draw Dante away by means of a friendly hand on his shoulder.

The passengers left the ship in the small hill town of Honda, where a long line of donkeys awaited their arrival. Dante dissolved in laughter at the sight of the elegant Don Claudio mounted on a donkey, his long legs dangling nearly to the ground. His much heavier brother looked even more incongruous on the tiny creature, who bore its burden like a Christian martyr.

It only took a few hours for Dante’s amusement to die. The Italian boy’s buttocks were young and tender, the donkey’s back sharp and bony. Nor was there any relief in walking alongside: though the pace was slow, the mountain path was tortuous. Dante’s feet slipped on the shifting stones, causing small avalanches of shale to tumble onto the terraced fields below. A single irate farmer waving an iron hoe in his face convinced Dante to complete the voyage astride, consigning himself to the bony back of the more sure-footed animal. The boy’s buttocks soon bore blisters upon blisters. While Don Cosimo silently handed him a jar of salve, there was no thought of stopping: the pain simply had to be endured.

The hoardes of mosquitos had been replaced by something far more deadly. The men slept on narrow mattresses placed on hard ground, under a canvas tarp. Dante learned to shake out his bedding each evening before climbing into it. Each morning, he carefully examined his pants and shoes for hidden predators.

“Forget, and it’s the last mistake you’ll ever make, Señor,” said the caravan leader. Dante wondered how many newcomers had forgotten this warning. Every evening, workers with machetes slashed the perimeter of the camp, clearing out the vegetation where tarantulas could hide.

Above all, Dante missed the exquisite shipboard food, served on white tablecloths and china. At mealtimes, the donkey handlers drew an array of pots and pans out of the saddle bags. Unused to a steady diet of rice and beans, Dante’s whole lower half—bowels as well as buttocks—was now aflame. He also began to suffer from altitude sickness, swaying with dizziness upon his mount. So it was that Dante discovered there is no true Eden on earth. As painful as it was, however, it was far better than anything he had imagined when he discovered that his ship was headed for Colombia.

Check back on Monday, May 9th, for Part 23. 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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