Red Queen to White Queen, Part 26: Legend of El Dorado

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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 xx

Click here for Part I.xxx

x
***************

Back home in the brothers’ comfortable house, Dante queried them about the young woman. Out of respect, he directed his first question to the elder brother, who shrugged in his usual shy manner. This gave Don Claudio permission to wander delightedly into the gap.

“Don Arturo is an odd man and Magda his only child. They keep to themselves. I still don’t understand why he invited us to dinner. Perhaps he expects you to marry his daughter.”

Don Claudio laughed out loud at Dante’s look of horror. “It’s a joke. More likely, he does not intend for the girl to marry at all. It is often so in these old Colombian families: one child, usually the eldest daughter, is kept at home to care for the aged parents. Another is donated to the church, either as priest or sister. It is only the third child who is afforded the honour of offering up grandchildren for the family.”

Over the years, Don Claudio had managed to glean a little of Don Arturo’s history. The man had begun his career as a health inspector with the city of Bogotá. Due to his wife’s delicate health, however, he had requested a transfer to the milder climate of Medellín. He returned to the capital 15 years later, bearing in his wake a child of three. Her birth, he claimed, had cost the mother her life.

Don Claudio hesitated a moment, contemplating the ash at the end of his cigarette.

“You know, Dante, that I am not one to encourage gossip.”

Dante suppressed a smile. Gossip was the very bread of life for Don Claudio. It took only a moment for the words to come tumbling out.

“Our neighbours claim the girl was the result of a liaison between Don Arturo and a domestic,” Don Claudio confided, sotto voce. “Don Arturo’s late wife was a green-eyed blond, born in Spanish Galicia. Don Arturo, as you know, also has light eyes.”

Don Claudio suspected that the child’s real mother had been returned to her village, in a tradition that went back centuries. The infant was left behind: her mother would no more dream of taking her than she would the silver.

Unfortunately for Don Arturo, Magda bore no resemblance whatsoever to her Spanish father and his late wife. Hers were the high cheekbones, dark skin, and commanding presence of the country’s original rulers: the Muisca. It was a Muisca chieftain who inspired the legend of El Dorado: the golden one. During his initiation, each successive chieftain would cover himself in gold dust, then dive into the sacred lake of Guatavita. The gold remained in the lake, as an offering to the gods.

“I read that El Dorado was a city of gold,” said Dante.

Don Claudio chuckled. “The country’s original inhabitants were not stupid. Rumours of the conquistadors’ arrival spread quickly from village to village. They knew that the white-skinned strangers had come for gold and were prepared to do anything, including murder, to obtain it. So whenever the Spaniards entered a village, the inhabitants directed them onward, toward the mountains. There, they said, lay a whole city of gold. In this way, they pushed the Spaniards ever deeper into the interior.”

Over time, he added, the reality of a chieftain’s initiation rite grew into a mythic kingdom of gold.

“So El Dorado never existed?” asked Dante, disappointed.

“Not in the way you have heard,” answered Don Claudio. “The Muisca were certainly excellent craftsmen. Most of their gold artifacts were, however, melted down and shipped back to Spain as plunder. Remind me to take you to see the few that remain.”
****
Don Arturo did not join the pantheon of regular dinner hosts wooing the brothers. Soon after the invitation, he and Magda left the city for an extended period. Dante was not sufficiently interested to ask their whereabouts. There was so much more to engage his attention.

Strolling through warehouse gave Dante plenty of time to reflect on how he might make his own fortune. It did not occur to him to stay with the brothers forever. No matter how benevolent the employer, he did not wish to see the profits of his labour flow into the hands of another man. In the meantime, he studied the brothers’ business: warehousing Italian goods for resale to the host of small Italian groceries located in the city. Part of Dante’s job was to visit those businesses and collect their orders.

It was during one of these visits that the answer came to him. Bogotá was just beginning to enter the industrial age, with small factories springing up all over the city. Every day at lunchtime, factory workers sent one of their number to purchase sliced meat, bread, and cheese for his fellows. Dante realized that he could cut out the middle man and sell directly to the workers, bringing them their sandwiches in a small cart. It was his old poker business, with one exception: in these new factories, there were hundreds of men clamouring for food. Unused to having money in their pocket, they spent freely on ready-made food and drink. It was a small start, not as prestigious as his current occupation, but he would at least be his own man. The Brothers Romano were happy to oblige him: here was another long-term customer for their goods.

At first, Dante manned the cart himself. Before long, however, he was able to employ a host of young Bogotanos. driving a series of carts. There was some competition, as Colombians awoke to the possibilities of the factory lunchtime market. But none had access to the sliced meats and cheeses of the Brothers Romano. The competitors’ deep-fried pig rinds, yucca, and plaintain, while tasty, could not satisfy the appetites of men who worked long hours on the factory floor. And Dante made sure they got their money’s worth. Long loaves, purchased for mere centavos from labouring housewives, were filled to bursting, at a cost the workers could afford.

As his business grew, Dante’s eye fell upon the wine market. The Brothers Romano knew better than to import bottles of commercial wine to expatriate Italians. Winemaking ran in their countrymen’s blood: dozens of bottles were made to celebrate a child’s christening, then preserved for the day that child turned 21. Instead of wine, the brothers imported barrels of grape juice, to mix with home-grown grapes. In this way, every Italian who grew his own little vines in a finca located down the mountain was satisfied that at least part of the wine came from his own efforts.

Dante, however, was eyeing the larger market. While upper-class Bogotanos imported their wine directly from Europe, there was now a growing middle class. As a life-long member of that class, Dante knew that they also aspired to the finer things of life.

Dante set up his wine-making operation in a corner of the brothers’ warehouse, where he insisted on paying rent for the privilege. Elegant labels bore the name Castelfranco Emilia, in honour of his father’s ancestral village.

Dante’s most dedicated customers were the brothers’ steadfast friends, the brothel madams. They provided the steady income the business required during its early days. Before long, there was also a small storefront on the city’s most prestigious avenue. Proper middle class ladies never discovered they were purchasing the same wine served to their husbands in the city’s houses of prostitution. Nor would they: Dante was careful that all wine intended for the brothels was shipped in enormous, unmarked barrels.

***
Check back on Thursday, May 26, for Part 27. 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 teaching and writing. 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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