One night after the rest of the circus had gone to sleep I loaded each of my pistols, holstered them over my waistcoat, concealed them under my jacket and with a hot bowl of goulash and a spoon wandered down to see if the hunger artist was dead yet. Down past the rides, past the food trucks, behind the pens where the animals were kept I trudged through the mud until I saw the steel cage in the distance and barely visible in the moonlight ‘forty days without food’ scratched in chalk on the blackboard. I approached and peered inside and prayed to see a corpse.
“Hanging in there?” I said.
The collection of pale skin drawn too taut against bones stirred and with a gasp began to breathe again as though an absence had passed since the last. It lay facing away from the outside world and each vertebrae stuck out jagged down its spine. As it sat up its skin and sinew peeled away from being stuck to the bottom of its cage too long motionless and naked but for a pair of shorts and clutching a blanket for comfort in its grasp and he rolled over and with his old dead eyes desperate blinked and squinted and then he saw me and he smiled as best he could.
“Hanging in there,” he said. He stretched within his cage.
“Are you hungry?” I said. “That Hungarian acrobat made goulash.” He raised his eyebrows at me and smiled again.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“Well this is here if you change your mind.”
I put the bowl of goulash down just outside his cage but close enough for him to reach it if he wanted it. It was cold and I put my hands into my pockets.
“Did anyone come and see you today?” “Emma and Benji were here a few hours ago.” “You know what I mean. Patrons.”
He shook his head. I stepped forward and touched the cool steel of his cage. “How about yesterday?”
“I don’t recall.”
“When was the last time anyone came to see your act?” “Some children, last week. Tuesday I think.”
“I heard they threw mud at you.”
“Well,” the hunger artist said, “we’re moving on in the morning. Maybe I’ll have more luck in the next town. Where are we going again?”
I put my hands back into my pockets.
“Look, it’s about time we faced a few facts,” I said.
“Your act isn’t something people are interested in anymore. I’ve got bills to pay. I have to let you go.”
There were dark circles under his eyes like I’d never seen before. “You can’t do that to me,” he said.
“I’ll keep you on with the circus still. We’ll find another job for you.” “I don’t want another job. I can’t cost you much to keep on.”
“I want to get a leopard in here. I need your cage.”
“Then I’ll buy a chain and you can have my locked up like a dog on the leash.” “No.”
“I don’t want to.”
The hunger artist shifted forward onto his knees and pressed his hands up against the bars of the cage to hold himself up.
“What is it then?” he said. “I don’t embarass you, do I?”
I didn’t know what to say. It was hot all of a sudden. I unbuttoned my jacket. “People don’t like to be reminded that they’re dying,” I said.
“I’m not dying.”
“Have some goulash, at least.”
I picked up the bowl and offered it to him but he didn’t take it. “Well, you’ve got your guns.”
I pulled my jacket tight around my waist. “That’s not why I have them,” I said.
“Well if you want me gone you’re going to have to use them.”
I threw the bowl at him as hard as I could and the ceramic shattered against the bars of the cage and pieces of bowl and goulash exploded everywhere.
“What is wrong with you?!” “Nothing,” he said.
Enraged I fumbled for my keys. The hunger artist didn’t shirk away when I unlocked the door of his cage and slammed it open and grabbed him by the throat and dragged him out and cast him facedown into the mud.
“Eat the fucking goulash!” “No!”
I grabbed him by his hair and pushed his face into the ground. “Eat!”
I pinned him down with one hand and with the other grabbed a handful of mud and goulash and shoved it in his face trying as best I could to get any of it into his mouth but he spat it out and bit my finger as hard as he could.
“You fuck! You fucking fuck!”
I kicked him until I could pull my hand away and my finger was bleeding and I was trying to stop the bleeding when the hunger artist rose to his feet squared up and slapped me as hard as he could with all his frail might. I collected him clean with a vicious jab that dropped his withering corpse back down into the mud.
“You’re nothing but a crazy fucking orphan. I never should have taken you on,” I said. “If you’re still alive, I hope you know how to shoot.”
I took one of the pistols out of the holsters across my waistcoat and tossed it into the mud beside him.
“As in, a duel?” he said.
“It’s up to you. If you walk away right now, you can leave with your life. But slapping me has a price.”
“What price is that?”
“You can never fast again.” “Never?”
“You stop this hunger artist bullshit. If I ever find out otherwise, you can trust me on this, I will make you regret it.”
He didn’t say anything.
“One thing I’ve always admired in you is your honour. I know that I can trust your word,” I said, “do we have a deal?”
The hunger artist stood up and picked up the gun and checked to see if it was loaded. “Very well,” I said.
We stood back to back each clutching our pistols. “Take six steps,” I said. “Then turn.”
“Are you ready?” “Yes.”
I went to take a step and a shot rang out. I spun around with my pistol aimed to take him out for firing early. But the hunger artist was standing still with his pistol aimed straight into the air. He fired again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And then he tried to fire once more but he was out of bullets and all that could be heard was a faint metallic click and then he tossed the pistol down into the mud in front of him and stared back at me.
“Go on then,” he said.
We stared at each other for the longest time until he realised that I wasn’t going to shoot him and he turned and began to walk away.
“What will you do?” I said. He stopped.
“I’ll find somewhere. I’ll fast longer than I ever have before. Eighty days, ninety. A hundred.”
“I should put you out of your misery.” “Probably,” he said.
He turned to leave once more. “Why?” I said.
He looked up at the sky and then at me. “To live forever.”