The Ship, a painting in Maria Cacao’s house

The Day I Met Maria Cacao.

From where I am from, Maria Cacao is a fairy. Her story has been passed on from generation to generation. Hers is the invisible golden ship that sails the seas — off to bring chocolate to the farthest ends of the earth.

I met Maria Cacao in a client meeting. This is true.

She lives in a chocolate house and there are chocolate sculptures of women and a large chocolate painting of a large ship sailing out to sea. There are long regal tables and a grand chandelier. She says the chandelier reminds her of the palace — the one she would see at night in the forest where she lived when she was seven.

Seven is also the number of rivers you need to cross to get to her house in the mountains. There are spirits that follow you along the way and you might encounter rebels or some of the things that might happen when other people encounter rebels — like death.

The number of times her grand uncle has faced death is, however, unknown. But they have been numerous. He was a sailor of the ship, she says, the ship that brought chocolate to the farthest ends of the world. It was the ship that ordinary people could not see. Every time he would go on a voyage his spirit would leave his body. He would lie down in bed and sleep for days at a time. He would tell her to pray for him until he returned. Sometimes he would lie breathless. When he awoke he would tell of his journeys, how he promised the maiden of the ship that he would never marry. He built a small house and lived alone. From time to time he would go back to sleep and back up again, often looking out the window where he said they sailed, out into the horizon.

I have seen this horizon she tells us. It is endless.

She starts to pull warm chocolate between two metal pitchers. It thickens and the aroma possesses all of us. I will not lie to you as I write this. There are no lies in this piece. It is the most bittersweet cup of sikwate that I have ever tasted. It reminded me of childhood. It reminded me of all the people that I have lost.

The night crescendos into a feast and there is chocolate of every shape and size — many of it she has made herself. She asks what we think of her stories and what it is that we do. I tell her, we are illustrators and writers and each time we are asked to draw, or write, or retell an idea we always look for that grain of truth. I confess that sometimes it is difficult, that sometimes we take a little bit of what is genuine and we try to make it grow. I tell everyone that we are thankful to have had the chance to be in that room that night, to have listened to her tell us how she had been lost and how she had lost everything she treasured as a child. How she collected coconut husks to make a living. How the palace was the large tree beside her nanay’s house and that she could enter through it and see the rooms that led into a labyrinth lit by fireflies. How she journeyed across the sea and found her place in a city so different from where she came. How she picked herself up and raised 8 children and now owns farmlands and makes chocolate for new royalty — presidents, ambassadors, movie stars. Imelda Marcos once stopped walking down a hotel aisle to talk to her about chocolate and everyone knows Imelda Marcos doesn’t stop for anyone. She is unfazed by their glamour. She herself sits in the room — regal and with a composure that I can only imagine has been forged by the beauty and hardships of a thousand fires.

I tell her that tonight the truth is all that she has gone through, that whether we think her stories are real or not, there is this woman who has a vision of the world that is magical and whose hands can make the most delicious chocolate. As artists, we are enthralled by the fantasy. It reminds me of the way we look at things — that we can see something, anything, and tell everyone how it is dull and ugly, or beautiful.