Flawless Fasting

Submitted into Contest #168 in response to: Make a train station an important part of your story.... view prompt

7 comments

Sad Historical Fiction

Some artists sang, some danced, some performed magic for the fawning crowds, the man in the cage starved.

Behind thin metal bars, tall enough for him to stand up, and just wide enough for him to lay down, a man sat cross-legged on a folded mat. He was in conversation with several of the spectators, quietly talking, and then after a comment was made, laughed, along with many of the people. A clock was in the corner, with an extra hand, tracking along with minutes and hours, the days. It read 14 days, 12 hours and 57 minutes. The small sign on the front of the cage, next to the locked door read Hunger Artist.


The stone walls and the walkways of the old train station have been designed, destroyed, redesigned and rerouted many times over its long history. The gothic stone sculptures of thin, stretched and bug-eyed grotesques against the ceiling were the only clue to the extreme age of the construction. This particular corridor, between the main entrance on 32nd street and the largest and busiest platform, had phenomenal acoustics. The narrow passageway, with high windows and a curved ceiling combined to make even the squeakiest violin vibrate with thick sound, and the softest voice resonate with clarity and depth. 


 For this reason the hall was full of buskers of all abilities. Singers and guitar players, small ensembles, and elaborately dressed choral groups all played behind open music cases or soft felt hats, always with a few crumpled dollars inside even if they were put there by the musician themselves. 


 Each morning and evening I saw these performers as I walked through the train station on my commute. I had just finished University and was newly employed by Mr. Gierig at his business. He was a demanding boss, and I desperately wanted to be a success so I did my best to avoid these distractions, until that Saturday, when I first saw the Hunger Artist. I did not know then how he would impact my life.


I was returning home from the extra workday, and looking forward to an evening of rest. I had difficulty getting through a large group surrounding a performer. Not hearing any music, I was intrigued, what was this new kind of artist? As I stood at the edge of the crowd, more people were coming, adding to the group already gathered. I needed to appease my curiosity, and moved my way to the front. What I saw shocked me.   


 Through overheard conversations from the awed spectators, I learned he was a traveling performer and was fasting for tips. Wildly successful, his cage and constant audience proved he did not eat anything, save for a few sips of water that passed his lips each day. I listened to his improbable tales of travel through the continent of Asia and fantastical animals and people he described. His wild stories were as unbelievable and improbable as that a man could go so long without eating. He was there every day with bigger and bigger crowds as his performance continued. His audience, cheering on this athlete, were amazed at the man who could do this for such a long period of time. Finally he completed his performance of 30 days and moved on to his next town. It was while I was obsessed with the Hunger Artist, that I noticed another, less popular performer.  


She was a young singer, with a plaintive voice which pulled at my heart. I watched her for an hour, enraptured. Small and slight, her long dark hair was held by a simple clip at the base of her neck. But her voice was beautiful and profound, drawing in many passersby to stop and listen. When she was not singing she shrunk back, disappeared into the background in her simple and worn gray dress. After stopping each day for a week, I finally asked her name, and she told me, her hands washing themselves in front of me, her head bowed, though looking up with intelligent dark eyes. “Mary.”


I tried to lift up my shoulders and moved slightly so I stood in shadow to hide my face, as I am sensitive to how I appear. The dark scar along my cheek goes all the way to my chin and even skews how my mustache lays across the side of my face. My thin wire round glasses magnified my large eyes.  

Something spurred me that day, maybe it was a positive word from my boss, or an extra cup of coffee, but I found some hidden courage and asked Mary to join me for dinner that night. I had never asked a woman out before, but there was something about the emotion in her voice that called me to her. We found we had many goals in common, for stability, for a family, and talked long into the night. So excited to be with someone to share my thoughts, I ate little, and Mary appreciated my dinner as well as hers. We were married shortly after, in a small affair as her parents were many miles away, and mine had both passed. I look back now at those simple days as the best time of my life.  


Mary would meet me at the station when I got off the train from my commute, and we would walk home together. Our weekends were spent exploring the countryside and the small towns and villages common in our country. The adventures were fun, but to build a life for us, I had to get down to work. My young wife understood, I was supporting her toward building our future. 


 My work came first, I was building a business with Mr. Gierig. But it was hard, with long hours. He needed me to do more and more, take on more responsibility while he was away at his regular lunch meetings, and dinner parties. But I had to support our growing family. Soon Junior was born, and then Amelia. They were the sweetest children ever and I enjoyed our Sundays together. I wish now I saw them more, I often came home after they went to bed and was working more and more Saturdays to get ahead.  


 One Monday morning I saw the Hunger Artist again with only a few in the audience. He had a boy in front of him offering donuts to passersby. Having missed breakfast, I took one, and asked in passing where the boy had gotten the money for this offering. 


“Him that do it. He wants to reward the watchers.” Said the boy before he moved on.


Several people had spent the night with the Hunger Artist to make sure he didn’t break his fast. The Artist himself was standing and talking, wearing only soft pants and a blanket over his bare chest, even in the cold morning of the drafty station. His soft bag was full of dollars and coins. What was I doing? He was just sitting, and not eating, while taking home large sums while I scratched my fingers to the bone keeping accounts for Mr. Gierig.


I decided to at least thank him for my breakfast and so I introduced myself.  

“Hello Sir, thank you for the breakfast. What is your name?“

“I go by Künstler” Said the Artist.

“What brought you to this occupation?” I said in awe.


“Well, sir, I was a businessman, like yourself, but spent all my time chasing the dollar, I had little time to eat, or even sleep. I was filled with stress and anxiety. One evening after a day filled with urgency, I could not remember the last time I had eaten!” He paused, he gestured with his hands, animated. “It had been two days! I asked myself if I could go longer.” His eyes blazed with excitement.  


“I began training then, and started my performances a few years back. Now I can do 20, 30 days easily enough, and I am as you see me now, living a privileged life, meeting fine people like you!” 

I left, perplexed at this new type of performer and his success. 


Over the next few days, Künstler was continuing to collect great crowds, and his fast continued longer and longer, until it was his 40th day, his stated goal. The crowd, the largest yet, cheered him on as he was picked up and carried out by two men, as he could no longer walk. His gaunt body looked weak, however he had a big toothy smile and waved weakly as he was given a few bits of rice. 40 days! 

Künstler left the train station, onto his next performance somewhere across the globe. I envied him. To have only a job with no family to support, no stress, just, to not eat! 


For at this time my family was causing me trouble. The children were getting older, and they did not mind me, constantly crying to be held, or to play a silly game. I just did not have time for such frivolousness. Time and time again they were careless, spilling their soup, or dropping their tea cups to shatter. It was my responsibility to hold them accountable, for their too-kind mother did not. I knew what it took to succeed in life, and work, so I pushed my children to focus. To work harder on their studies and the music their mother taught them. I knew better than most that to reach a goal you must put in the work!   


I was doubling my effort with Mr. Gierig, and he noticed. He began to talk of letting me buy the business from him, if I could just take on a little more. So of course with that encouragement I put even more time. Bringing home papers to finish at the dining room table late into the night, ignoring the food I did not have time to eat. My wife had difficulty with this.


“Why must you bring this work into our home!” She cried.  


“To provide for you!” I said, confused at her question. "This is all for you and the children! You are the most important thing, so I will sacrifice everything for you!” I reached out to her but she pulled away.


She cried, tears of joy, into her arms.  The children didn't understand of course. They were still young, what should I expect? I had concerns about the direction they were going, the paths they were going to take after school. Junior wanted to become a chef, Amelia a musician like her mother. What ridiculous professions! I hinted at my dream, my vision that I could buy the business from Mr. Gierig and then Junior could take over for me. What a joy to work with my son! We could take the train together, enjoy lunch at the office! But for some reason he did not want that, he wanted anything except that. 

"Never, never!” Junior cried, “I won’t work at the place that stole you from us!” 

I didn't understand these words, but of course, they were only children.


Mary asked to go away one weekend, so we took the train to the lake country. It was a beautiful day, sitting and watching the birds and animals play in the water. She brought a picnic lunch, but I didn't care to eat. I needed to explain my vision, for Junior to follow in my footsteps, first university and then into business.

Mary did not listen, but said I was distant, I needed to be more present in the lives of the children. 

“Junior and I argued just this morning! How is that distant?” I said.


“If only you could see how they want to be with you! Just last week we went to meet you at the train station like I used to, but you took a later train, and we had to leave.” 


“Well, I had to work late that day as Mr. Gierig asked me to write a speech for him on how to be a good family man. He has so many obligations! He is rarely at the office any more, building up his reputation. What a boss!” I shook my head in awe and admiration. “He promised me a promotion, how could I say no?” I said, unable to hide my delight.  


“Another promotion, wasn’t there one last year?” Said Mary.


“No. Well, it was postponed, you see.” I said, attempting to explain. “There was an unexpected expense for a trip to Italy Mr. Gierig needed to take-” I saw in Mary’s eyes she did not understand. 


“It seems to me you work hard with little reward while Mr. Gierig is enjoying himself-”


“-Do you profess to understand how a business works?” I exclaimed, enraged at her misunderstanding. “You are but a housewife, and once performed in public for, spare change!” Something changed in Mary’s eyes at my words, the glitter gone, they turned hard and black.

“I have everything in control.” I said adamant. How could she understand, just a woman? “I just need to work harder. More time, more effort. I needed to be perfect!” I said. 


We returned from our trip and arrived at the train station. Her head was bowed, she walked alone in her thoughts. I pointed out the performers in the station, hoping to enliven her spirits, but she did not pay attention. Then I saw the cage of the Hunger Artist. 


“ Künstler! Künstler, I remember you from many years ago, do you remember me?” I said.  

“No, I meet many people. But I do remember being in this station many years ago.” Said Künstler.

As we talked most, no one else stopped, and only a few coins were in his bag. 


“Where are your fans, your great audiences?” I said.


“I have not had the same response as I did when you last saw me. However I am working harder than ever, I have almost perfected flawless fasting!” His lips were chapped and dry, his eyes deep in his emaciated skull. “I know if I can do an 80 day fast the crowds will return!” Said Künstler.     


“I believe in you! “ I said, and then leaned in. “You do not look as happy as you used to, you used to be full of smiles and laughter.” I said, watching his red eyes. “Maybe by eating something you would be happy again-”

“-You don't understand!” Said Künstler, before he turned away. 


I had doubled my efforts at work, putting all my energy into becoming successful, for Mary, for the family. Until one night, after an extra long day I returned home late to found my home empty and dark. Mary had left a note that she was leaving. She was going back to live with her mother. Kindly, she had left a last offering, a plate of my favorite dinner on the counter. I left it there untouched for a week before the rats found it and I had to throw it out.  


I stopped to speak everyday with Künstler, to ask how he was doing, and got the same response. 

“Fine. go away.”


Until one day I saw him up, leaning on his elbow. The clock on the ground, forgotten. “Why do you do this? Come with me, there is no one here, the crowds are gone-”

“No!” He rose up, his deep set eyes blazed with fire.

“I am close to perfection. I will just have to fast longer, I can do it easily. Then the crowds will come back. I will be a celebrity again!” Künstler closed his eyes and fell back, tired from his outburst. I was amazed at his strength, his sacrifice for his work.


Despite my efforts, something changed with Mr. Gierig. He had hired a new, younger assistant who was able to do more than I was, and at a lower salary. I put in even more time, often sleeping at the office, but it was not enough. When I had to leave that day, I put the letter of reference he gave me in my satchel for safe keeping. Walking through the train station I saw a janitor in the Hunger Artist’s cage, pulling out old blankets and a torn bag. 


“What happened to Künstler?” I said, concerned.


“Who?” Said the janitor. “ Do you mean the guy who lived in this cage? He died last night. We just removed the body.” 


I watched the janitor cleaning out the cage in silence, in remembrance of the Artist.


“What are you doing with the cage? I asked when he was finished and about to walk away.

“I don't know?” The janitor shrugged. “Get rid of it I guess.”


“Would it be possible- could I have it?” I asked, tentatively.

“Sure,” the janitor smiled. “Go ahead.”


I looked at the cage and then walked around it, touching the bars. I got inside and took off my suit jacket. I folded it into a mat, and then sat down on it, cross legged, and closed the cage door. I opened up my satchel and removed all the papers, tossing them out of the cage. I opened it wide in front of me and put a few crumpled dollars in it.  


I do not care for most food. I can be perfect, I can fast flawlessly. 

A few people passing by stopped and stared at the lean man with a scar on his face, and bulging eyes, one even tossed some change into the open satchel. The stone sculptures of thin, stretched-out and bug-eyed grotesques looked down silently. 


October 21, 2022 18:54

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7 comments

Delbert Griffith
12:26 Nov 03, 2022

You certainly know how to spin a yarn, Marty. Nicely done with the ending. The story almost feels like an aphorism. Great work.

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Marty B
18:29 Nov 03, 2022

Thanks for the good words! 'spinning a good yarn' is why I write. I had to look up 'aphorism' LOL Thanks!

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AnneMarie Miles
13:30 Oct 27, 2022

You are quite the storyteller. And this was an interesting one. I really liked that you had the Hunger Artist side by side with your MC; it was a nice contrast and a good build up to your MC becoming a Hunger Artist himself. I laughed when your MC stayed late to write his boss's speech about being a good family man! An irony that I feel is too real.

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Marty B
18:54 Oct 27, 2022

Thanks for the good words! work/life balance is fine for the boss- not so much for the workers.

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Oct 24, 2022

Hmm, obsession with perfection? What a destructive thing. I had a suspicion something was off, after they got married and he said he would do everything to provide for her. This was suspicious, because by his own admission, she had a killer singing voice. So he's stubborn. Things must be his way. He asks neither his wife, nor his children, and instead tells them how things should be. And naturally, that leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, and ultimately her leaving. That's a telling thing though, isn't it? She leaves him, and yet he...

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Marty B
22:17 Oct 24, 2022

The -hunger- for perfection in work, in love, in family- taken to the extreme has consequences. You got what I was hinting at, self deprivation is not success, although many people describe it as that way in work and family situations: e.g. 'I am so busy' Instead of being present. Thanks!

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Michał Przywara
22:58 Oct 24, 2022

Yeah, that makes sense. Planning for the future is wise. Too much planning though, and you miss out on the now.

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