Drink Van Houten’s Cocoa by Ornela Vorpsi

Antonella Lettieri

Photograph by Annie Spratt

“The only thing I ask of you,” Moma repeats from time to time, “is that you don’t put my age in my death notice. I beg of you,” she insists, trembling. Then she slips a creased paper worth ten lekë in our hands.

Our mums call for us, we answer that we’re at Moma’s. And all goes silent. Nothing dangerous can happen at Moma’s. Our duty towards her is to visit as often as possible, since Moma is our great-grandmother and in this life meeting your great-grandmother is a rare privilege. Also, here we show great consideration for old age. So, we’re going to Moma’s – this excuse works all the time.

Nobody knows how old Moma is. There isn’t a single piece of paper in the world that records her date of birth. She says she was maybe born in such-and-such a year, then she mentions another. In our country, she is the limit of old age, which is seldom reached. We even used to say: “Goodness me, look how strong Moma is! Moma who lives as long as the white raven! Moma who was forgotten by death! Just wait and see, the old woman will outlive all her children!”

The truth is that Moma was a triumph of health. Life ran vigorously in her, her body devoted to house chores from dawn to dusk without ever stopping.

Moma was really strong.

But we wanted to believe that great-grandmother wasn’t in full working order. I too had fallen into this trap without giving it too much thought. As soon as a secret stirred in my heart, I arranged to meet at Moma’s. At ours, talking about tricky subjects such as men and flirting was not an easy venture. At Moma’s, it was possible “because, even though her eyesight and hearing are just fine, in the end she doesn’t see or hear anything.”

For mum, auntie and perhaps even for me, it was as if, because of her immeasurable old age, Moma could no longer hear, nor see, nor understand, even though she was alert, even though she was lucid, mischievous, wicked even. Moma’s eyes, which had been sucked in by her sockets and were surrounded by the flaccid skin of a thousand painstakingly detailed wrinkles, must have lost their faculties. Though she grasped everything without fail, her decrepitude surely prevented her from understanding.

Moma’s room serves all purposes: a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and, thanks to a chamber pot, also a toilet. Within those few square meters, our secrets could come to light intact, we could turn them into words without fear of consequences. Even mum and auntie met there to tell each other their grievances against their husbands, only for the conversation to then get invariably sidetracked towards a certain handsome man whose eyes they’d met in the street, the heart flinging itself against the stomach, “Oh, these things are well in the past!” they’d sigh defeated.

At nightfall, with the warmth that follows dusk, always among cousins, and sometimes with schoolmates too, that room felt to us like the place better suited to our souls.

We knock impatiently on her door, walk in without waiting for an invite, sit ourselves on the sofa, greet her with a quick “Good evening” only to then leave her alone, in bed, as big as a doll that is and isn’t there depending on our whims. We pair our chitchat with the treats she bakes: “Look in the oven, Denata, and take some more, bring me some too, I want the thin biscuits, the coconut ones!”

The more the sugar descends into our stomachs, the closer the confessions get to boiling point. We reveal the secrets of our hearts: “Oh! That boy we saw today in the street, he was so handsome! The way he looked at me, the way I looked at him, but why, how come that, if I close my eyes, I can no longer retrace his face in my mind? I’m racking my imagination but it always fails me halfway! And yet I know that he has short brown hair, that he’s tanned, slim, tall. That he always wears a blue t-shirt with white stripes on the shoulders. Those wide shoulders, they promise you the world, they promise you everything, even beyond the world itself. My heart is sick with joy, but why does his face elude me? Let me try again, I’ll close my eyes once more!”

Moma is lying in bed ready to go to sleep, she doesn’t talk to us. She knows we didn’t come to chat with her. Only from time to time her voice interrupts our whispers for a moment, begging us to remember: under no circumstance, she wants her age on her obituary notice. Then she goes quiet again.

"An empty space,” she pleads, “just leave the space blank.” Moma is deeply ashamed of being old, of being so old.

In Moma’s room, we couldn’t help but notice life’s blunders: our mums led lives they didn’t deserve, the wrong men lay in their beds and we liked boys who didn’t requite. That’s how the world went, stumbling on. Moma’s little room knew a thing or two about it: it was as if, inside those four walls, errors took a concrete, material form, you could touch them with your hands as if they were a chair or a table. In the air within the room, in the shapes made of steam that hung above the pressure cooker always on the go, the mistake of her death floated visibly – her death who was failing to take her in time, leaving her mystified in her disgrace.

Every night, great-grandmother would beg death to hurry up. When I asked her: “But why do you want to die so badly, Moma? Nobody wants to die,” she’d reply that death would make her forget certain things. “Don’t ask me what, though,” she’d add in a panic.

Even if we didn’t believe her, she wouldn’t give up, she insistently tried to grab our attention with her worn voice: “I should’ve long been six feet under! How can death forget someone like this?”

We were unperturbed at Moma’s remarks: we listened to her, sure, we could repeat everything she said word by word, but nothing pushed through into the depths of our sensitivity. At thirteen, old age and the thought of old age are far away, they don’t belong to us. Until the age of fourteen or fifteen, numbering is easy – counting off to fourteen takes no time, though getting there living life day by day takes ages – but counting to the age of eighty and beyond is tiresome, boring. Moma’s age seems like a mysterious number multiplied by seventeen. I understand why she feels crushed under the weight of so much life.

When young people happen to die (when Artan died, for example, our neighbour, twenty-four years old, the day before his wedding), we hold our breath in the face of the injustices of life, or rather its oddities.

Moma wants death, but death doesn’t want Moma. Artan is not thinking about death: it’s Thursday, on Friday his bride will be ready, all drowning in white lace, on Sunday he’ll go to pick her up and make her his own. But first, he’d like to tidy up the house, make it look nicer, the old family photographs and the paintings of beaches at sunset have been looking on from the same walls for years.

Artan decides to move them around, to freshen up the living room since a woman is about to step foot in this home. He dusts off the drill, aims at a new spot on the wall, turns it on and all of a sudden his body slumps over, heavy, lifeless flesh on the floor.

The electric shock has coursed through his body taking away his breath. Death enters the scene of his forthcoming wedding.

Two days after Artan’s passing, I go for a walk with Blerinda, his sister. Disfigured by the dread of the end by the sleepless nights by grief, Blerinda points with her slender dirty fingers at an old woman who happens to walk by us: “Look, will you look at that!” she says, her voice dulled by bitterness, “the old woman, she lives, while my Artan is eating earth.”

The old woman wasn’t aware she’d crossed into our conversation. She moved along and we kept staring in silence at her bent back, as if her hump were hiding the rest of Artan’s life. That hump had at its centre the error of the young man’s death.

I thought about Moma, Moma was much older than the woman wobbling away. I was sure that, the next time Blerinda would come to see me at Moma’s, she’d think again: “Look, the old woman lives, while my Artan is eating earth,” surely she wouldn’t dare to repeat it, but seeing her crumpled eyes would be enough to know what was screaming in her body.

When Moma heard about Artan’s death, she shrunk, she wanted to disappear, to dissolve, I could feel it, she was overcome by her disgrace, her face turned fleetingly red, then became ashen. She was guilty of not dying in due time. With quiet steps, she headed towards the bathroom and bent over the laundry tub. Hunched up, all dressed in black, her cotton scarf wrapped around what little hair she had left, she scrubbed her clothes in a frenzy, splashing everywhere and creating so much foam, always washing and rewashing the same garments.

“Artan is eating earth.” The words whispered by Blerinda pushed me to picture Artan dressed as a bridegroom – they’d dressed him as a bridegroom so that his mother’s sobs would touch the sky – in his new suit, black and stiff, his immaculate shirt, his patent leather shoes, all shaved, smelling of cologne. He was sitting in his coffin on a brown chair (the chair must be brown like the earth, I think), filling his fists with dust mud and roots and stuffing them into his mouth. He no longer wanted to hear from us, the electric shock had put him off us. He only wanted to eat earth now.

One morning, Moma woke up with a very painful swelling on her crotch. The swelling was growing visibly.

“It’s cancer,” she’d say peacefully, “finally cancer! Death must be just around the corner.”

“What are you talking about, Moma,” I’d say, while I furtively examined the swelling, which was taking on a yellow hue under her clean garments (it should be said that Moma’s clothes were incredibly clean, I’ve never seen anyone as clean as her: due to excessive scrubbing and washing, the cotton of her skirts had become so thin you could even catch a glimpse of her withered and warped legs).

Moma wanted to die and in that dying I could hear her silent distress. So I started telling lies to Moma, or rather I gifted them to her. I’d leave Ilira and Teuta to discuss their love stories and I’d crawl with her into the unknown lands of the impossible.

Every evening I’d bring with me fantasies that were growing bigger and bigger, just like the cancer under her dressing gown.

She’d hear me say:

“You know, Moma, I wouldn’t worry, take Elona’s grandmother, you don’t know Elona, she doesn’t come round here because she lives too far away, but one day her grandmother got a swelling just like yours. It was cancer, everybody said. She was done for, they repeated non-stop. Elona’s family was getting ready for the bereavement. Her swelling was not yellow like yours, but dark brown, can you believe it, Moma, dark brown and purple, that’s how nasty her cancer was! I saw it with my own eyes, just like I see yours now! What happened then? One morning, Elona’s grandmother woke up and she could no longer feel pain from that tumult of flesh wanting to steal her life. She lifted her nightgown to have a look and she couldn’t believe her eyes: the big malignant swelling, which was three times as big as yours, Moma, are you listening to me? The swelling that had been stagnating in her thigh for months now – it was gone. Vanished into thin air in one night, in a matter of hours.”

Moma’s amazement drove me to fill my stories with unheard-of wonders, only to then discover that I too was thirsty to believe in them. Someone was whispering behind my ear stories I didn’t know, I was only the mouth relating them. Storytelling gave me a murky pleasure: we would both set off for the land of miracles, we both needed it so much. One portent more impossible than the next.

At the end of every story, and hiding it from the others, she’d slip another ten lekë in my hand and it was always the same worn paper, as if all of Moma’s ten-lek notes had been washed in the laundry tub together with her clothes. As soon as I’d gleefully made it disappear in the pocket of my trousers, she’d ask kindly:

“You won’t forget that I don’t want my age in my death notice, will you? Do you promise?”

“Of course, Moma, I won’t forget, but you’re not listening to me, you’re not listening, because if you were paying attention you’d know that tomorrow morning you’ll wake up fully healed, just like Elona’s grandmother. The fact you had cancer will be just a memory! Listen to me.”

I had so much faith in that ‘me’ at the end of the sentence, as if it were a button I could push with my fingers to give orders to God.

Moma’s ten lekë will become two packets of dry biscuits tomorrow at break time; sometimes, I don’t know why, they taste like petrol, but I still like them so much. In giving me these ten lekë from time to time, Moma buys insurance on her request and she’s not wrong because, every time I swallow the delicious mush of the biscuit, I swear to myself, I swear to Moma and to everyone on earth that I won’t forget her last wish, such a solemn last wish!

This is why I’ve decided that tonight I’ll tell Moma of a certain man who ended up in the papers exactly because of his last wish before dying. I’ve just read about him in a poem by Mayakovsky. 'A Cloud in Trousers' is the title of that magnificent scream coming out of the poet’s lungs, a poem that harrowed me with marvel to the point that I’d to-and-fro the house reciting:

                    It’s fine,
                    when thrown at the gibbet’s teeth,
                    to shout:
                    “Drink Van Houten’s Cocoa!”

I didn’t understand in what way Van Houten’s cocoa could make death better, but in case it really did, I had to find that exceptional cocoa at all costs. With these thoughts in my head, I looked up in the book’s endnotes what Mayakovsky was referring to.

And so this is what I’ll tell Moma tonight:

“A long time ago, in 1907, but the year is disputed, there was in this world a man like many others. Having been sentenced to death for who knows what reason, the man was to be executed outdoors, in front of an audience. Then there’s this firm, which is still in business, that makes a fine cocoa and is called Van Houten. Van Houten needed publicity and had an idea that was far, far reaching: the firm decided to buy the last wish of the man sentenced to death. Van Houten would give a large sum of money to his family if he, at the moment of his execution, shouted as his last wish, at the top of his voice and in front of the curious crowd: ‘Drink Van Houten’s Cocoa!’
And he shouted it, Moma.”

I kept telling stories of mysterious recoveries and I was burning with the desire that Moma would wake up the next day cancer free. I’d concentrate as hard as I could to make the prodigy come true so that the malignant gland would go away tomorrow, lost in the night. The night would also swallow the supernatural truth of the recovery.

I don’t think I cared that much about Moma’s health, my desire was all in my yearning to touch the miracle. It was a sort of vertigo I’d climb and descend, a narrow, tortuous staircase where I’d lead in front of her, winded, dragging her along, I wouldn’t let go of her hand even when she wanted to give up, I wouldn’t let her jump off the rollercoaster of suspense.

I’d sing softly about the recoveries and sketch her at the same time. She was always lying on the bed.

“Stay still, Moma!” I’d order her.

She’d freeze her profile.

Questions would come out of her mouth, she demanded clarifications on the latest story I’d told her.

“Keep quiet, Moma” and I kept on sketching her, blending her hooked nose to make it more accurate.

I portrayed her lying down, her mouth half-open, her cheekbones clearly readable on her face, her strong nose, her jaws emptied of teeth and her sinking cheeks. Her eyes closed. Every time I looked at that image, I knew I’d drawn Moma lifeless. While I kept her alive by showing her the extraordinary, I was drawing her dead.

On a Wednesday afternoon, eternity found the place where Moma usually lay.

I opened the window of my room, the one with a view of the garden also overlooked by her window. The embroidered cotton curtains were stopping the constant noise of toing and froing. A strong smell of roses, an unusual smell, filled my lungs. It was nice weather. I didn’t move, I didn’t cry, I wasn’t crossed by grief, I was hanging there.

Moma was dead and an intense smell of roses filled my room. Suddenly, the suffocating veil of roses, meant to cover the smell of the dead, was ripped by the sharp voice of a woman lamenting. She must have been the lady in black, the one who always walked in the shade on Fridays. Her fingers were covered in silver rings and she wore countless bracelets on her wrists. The sharp voice could only be hers.

In the middle of a dark patch of women, the slim body accompanied her sobs with convoluted gestures. I could hear her bracelets jingle. The slim body pretended to scratch her face, acting out the scene of grief, her hands trying to attack the sky.

The scent of roses had swept over the garden, wherever I went I could smell corpse and roses.

I went out in the street because I wanted to run away from that voice, Moma’s obituary notice was pasted onto the front door, I stopped to read it, then stared at her photograph for a long time, her skull wrapped in her faithful white scarf, her eyes sucked out by life. There was no age. The printer had impressed the word ‘age’ but, next to it, the space was blank.

Translator’s note: the quote from Vladimir Mayakovsky is from The Bedbug And Selected Poetry, Indiana University Press, 1960, p. 87 and is translated into English by George Reavey.

Ornela Vorpsi, is a writer, artist, and photographer, born in Albania in 1968. She moved to Italy in her early twenties after the fall of the Communist regime and started writing in Italian. She then moved to France, and now writes in French, making her a trilingual writer. Her books in Italian include Il paese dove non si muore mai (Einaudi, 2005; Eng. trans.: The Country Where No One Ever Dies), Vetri rosa (Nottetempo, 2006), La mano che non mordi (Einaudi, 2007), Bevete cacao van Houten! (Einaudi, 2010), Fuorimondo (Einaudi, 2012), and Viaggio intorno alla madre (Nottetempo, 2015). In 2010, an extract from one of her novels was included in the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology, edited by Aleksandar Hemon and Zadie Smith.

Antonella Lettieri

Antonella Lettieri is a London-based translator working into English and Italian. She was the 2023 NCW Emerging Translator Mentee for Italian and was awarded first prize in the 2023 John Dryden Translation. Her translations, articles on literature and creative writing have been published in English and Italian magazines. Her first full-length translation, Maria Grazia Calandrone’s Your Little Matter, will be published in June 2024 by Foundry Editions. You can get in touch with her through her website (antonellalettieri.com) or Instagram (antonella.translates).

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