Originally published in Issue 31 of Prole Magazine, although unfortunately the ending of the story was cut off during printing.
Please enjoy this story in its full length here, if you wish!
Death came calling in a pinstripe suit and canotier hat, of the kind that nobody had worn for at least a hundred years. My narrow doorway framed his narrow frame, and he flashed grey teeth in a winsome smile.
“Kasi, darling.” Beneath those candy-cane clothes he was thinner than me, which was saying something. “May I come in?”
“Perhaps.” I leaned back in my wheelchair to peer up at him. “Will you be joining me on-stage today?”
“If you will have me, then most gladly.”
He surely had lives to collect and funerals to visit. Yet he was always here, courting me. I should have been flattered, but these days all I felt was tired. Inexplicably, unaccountably exhausted and flat.
“Of course. We work wonderfully together.” I made a gesture somewhere between flourish and seated bow, hoping it hid my insincerity. “But for the sake of my fans, please don’t call me Kasi on stage.”
He always drifted so easily into a name I hadn’t used for years, with anyone other than him.
“A perfectly fair requirement… Famishista.” He crossed the threshold with a wink.
My mother used to claim she couldn’t live without her Morning Routine: shower, moisturizer, make-up, clothes, hair. The whole thing would take her three hours from start to finish. Ironically, she died for the sake of that routine she couldn’t live without, choosing to ignore the fire alarms because I’m not done with these contours.
I left her perched in front of the mirror, foundation brush in hand and squinting at her reflection. When the fire reached our flat half an hour later, she burnt up in the oven of our building like an overcooked roast. That was Mom, committed to the end.
People liked to ask in interviews, Was that when it started? As if I needed a reason to be who and what I am. My answer has always been the same: I became myself one moment at a time, and at no moment in particular.
Still, I cannot deny that Mom’s passing proved to be a catalyst. For when Death came calling at my mother’s door, he caught sight of me and—so he later claimed—was smitten. He smiled sweetly and lingered longer than he should have in that lime-green hallway. At the time, teenage-me was too busy running for the stairwell to speak, although he didn’t escape my gaze.
I encountered him for the second time at Mom’s memorial, a fortnight later. Death was no stranger to funerals, so no one batted an eyelid when he slipped in mid-service wearing a banana-yellow suit and matching bowtie. I heard the faint clicking of his joints as he sat in the row behind me, and the soft crinkle of expensive satin that accompanied every move.
The service ground on, friends and colleagues taking turns to bury my mother’s life under an avalanche of manufactured praise and empty words. Death’s lemon-scented silence wrapped me like a balm, and I was grateful for his presence.
Perhaps if I had glanced over my shoulder, he might have spoken to me then; but perhaps not. Death is nothing if not patient, after all.
The thing with this line of work is that eventually, if you keep going, it swallows you whole.
I carried a lot of resentment for Mom. Years and years and years of it. But time ate away at my sourness until it became hollow like the rest of me. These days, I might even understand her. We would have a lot in common.
Like my Morning Routine, for example. Which I actually, literally, cannot live without.
In the privacy of my dressing room, I turned on the little camera above my window to activate my video feed for the first part of my performance. I’d experimented with conducting my Routine in public, but found the live-stream worked better. This way around, watchers got a thrill from the sense they were ‘spying’ on me, which in turn generated better ratings and wider exposure. And, eventually, more customers for Cafe Hollow.
Currently viewing: 44,586
Death hovered at my shoulder, just out of sight as I cleaned out the colostomy unit and stoma. The surgical truncation of my intestines was the first illegal operation I saved up for, almost fifteen years ago. Far more effective long-term than any plastic surgery. Having only six inches of small intestines made it harder to absorb food, and also meant I had less organs taking up space inside.
Currently viewing: 47,551
Pills for fatigue, more pills for dizziness. More pills to prevent swelling in my limbs. Cardio stabilisers and metabolic supplements. Vitamins for every letter of the alphabet. A calcium injection to stave off osteoporosis. Painkillers by the bottle, because it isn’t beauty if it doesn’t hurt like a bitch.
Currently viewing: 54,192
I shaved my head and eyebrows with a straight razor for added effect. My hair falls out anyway, and a bare scalp makes you look more fragile. Emphasis on look, because I am not fragile. Bone is the strongest thing in a human, and if I am reduced to all bone, then I am reduced to pure strength.
Currently viewing: 68,100
Some days I might take a gentle sponge bath. Today, I simply used moisturiser on my parchment skin, which persistent starvation had rendered delicate. Mom’s favorite brand; she’d be pleased.
Comments were piling in fast and thick, now. It was a toss-up between whether my haters outnumbered my admirers, but in the end, it didn’t matter. They all consumed me, and they all fed me. I’d learnt to accept the symbiosis of that relationship without complaint.
Currently viewing: 71,302
Cosmetics next. Chemical powder accentuated the blue tint in my fingers, contoured every protruding bone, deepened the hollows under each eye, and darkened the sunken skin between my ribs. Ideals by their nature must remain unachievable, or we cannot properly strive for them.
A peach-coloured dress, gossamer and fae with a 1920s cut. There are likely other body artists who perform without clothes and I am hardly a prude. You cannot be, in this profession. But clothing has its own kind of vulnerability to exploit, and forms part of my aesthetic; my deliberate affectation of class and culture from an era barely anyone can remember.
I blew the camera a kiss and switched it off.
You’d think my subscribers would get tired of all that, or find it gross. But they loved the visceral details. The grimmer, the better. Humanity in a nutshell, that. I even had my own mini-legion of copycats, young viewers who were saving up for all the same surgeries. Who learned from my routines, my cosmetic tips, my everything.
Well, it was a living. Maybe even a life. Everything I’d ever wanted and far more.
Except it didn’t feel like much of anything, today. The same exhaustion dogged me, as it always seemed to whenever Death was around. I might be pure strength, yet I still wasn’t strong enough to stand up and walk on my own feet.
“Beautifully done,” Death murmured. He said some variation of that praise every time, but this time it gave me no glow, no sense of elation. “Shall I escort you out, Famishista?”
Soon, I would have to tell him the truth. I wondered how he would react. I wondered how I would react, and what it would mean for us in the long term.
“If you would.” I settled back into the wheelchair as he moved to stand behind me, delicate grey fingers closing on the handles.
Truth could wait, at least until after the show.
Thousands viewed my Daily Routine online, but the real performance was one I reserved for watchers in the flesh. The passion of my existence could not be experienced in any other way, and on such authenticity did my brand rest.
Death steered me out of the dressing room. A two-tiered restaurant full of people watched with feasting eyes as we emerged into the Cafe Hollow’s main building. They were hungry for hunger itself, appetites whetted for a meal far more satisfying than food and they held their collective breath to listen for my trademark line. The words which had made me famous.
“Consume me,” I said, and bared my teeth in a skeleton’s smile.
The thing with conquering yourself is this: in the final analysis, it’s self-defeating.
People always want to focus on a single instance, an isolated decision or pinpoint of time where Everything Changed Forever. As if life were a video game, hinging rigidly upon binary choices.
Reality is more subtle. Mom and I were always crashing from one diet to the next. That much was already my normal. And maybe after she passed—with the insurance payments stalled and jobs not working out and relationships collapsing like straw houses under an onslaught of mythical canine breath—just maybe, I ate a little less, and dieted a little more.
Maybe, just maybe, all those moments where I chose to leave a plate unfinished started rolling together, closer and closer and more and more of them, until not eating became one long continuous moment that lasted for the whole of every meal. Until getting through the day with as few mouthfuls as possible became a goal unto itself.
In a world of shifting chaos, imposing order on the body became my act of sanity. Everyone wants to be sane. I’m no different in that respect.
I began to take exquisite pleasure in going to cafes and restaurants, ordering lovely dishes, and not eating them. Instead, I watched the food cool and decay in front of me, as if keeping vigil over a beloved corpse. Like Kafka’s hunger artists of old, I practised my public fasting with pious fervour and invited the world to see.
And one day, when I looked up from contemplating yet another uneaten spread, I found Death sitting by himself at the next table over, watching me with delight. He wore a double-breasted suit of wine-grape purple, with matching chimney pot. Dapper enough to eat.
“Marvellous,” he said, marvelling. “You have revived starvation as an artform. I haven’t seen a proper hunger artist since the nineteenth century, and even then, none of them had your flair.”
“Strange to find you here. Should I be concerned by your presence?” I scraped knife and fork together in a mimicry of dining, playing endlessly with my uneaten food.
“My dear, you wound me with your suspicions!” He pouted like a child. A hollow-eyed, sunken-cheeked, ashen-skinned child. “Can’t a man enjoy a night on the town? Not everything is for work. It’s a lonely life, being Death.”
Something in his mannerisms piqued my interest even then, and I smiled with coy delight. “If you want to join me, Mr. Death, you only have to ask. No need to be so roundabout.”
“Me, arrive uninvited? The mere thought.” He left his seat to fill the empty chair across from mine in a crush of velvet and pinot noir. “Just Death, if you will. Mister is rather formal between friends, don’t you think?”
I reflected on that statement, weighing it as I weighed myself every morning. “Are we friends, then? I could have sworn I barely know you.”
“You know me better than you think. Others are shy of me, yet you have no fear. I admire your verve.” Death picked up his silverware and cut into the steak in front of him, shearing flesh with a surgeon’s touch.
“Uh huh. Say that to all the girls, do you?”
“Certainly, but in your case, I really mean it.” He piled shredded meat atop cracked bones in a beautiful little sculpture, and decorated the lot with salad leaves. “You are one of a kind, dearest Kasi.”
I laughed as I poured a glass of water, amused by his lies and intrigued by his morbid art. Pretending, half-heartedly, that I wasn’t flattered by his words and attention, though of course I was. Every girl wants to hear that she is killing herself with style.
And so began my evening dinner dates with Death. Other suitors had come and gone—soft boys with sad hearts, and brittle girls with bawdy laughs. None of them could compare. Death sat at my table with courteous grace: wafer-thin and corpse-grey, the best-dressed person I had ever met, and seemed to know me better than I knew myself.
I slipped my ever-thinning hand into his as we chattered happily about books, philosophy, and surrealist aesthetics. Together, we watched through meal after uneaten meal as the bones of my wrist emerged from the unsacred flesh which obscured them.
At the time, I thought I was happy; looking back, I suspect I was merely in love. The two are often confused, and romance is never sweeter than when it first bites.
Something about his presence drew the eyes of others. Other diners began to sneak us looks, where before they had politely ignored me. One evening, a few weeks after we’d begun convening, a little girl stared at my unused plate and back at her full one, then put down a forkful she’d been about to eat. She didn’t touch her food for the rest of her meal.
A tiny thrill ran the length of my spine. Knowing that others saw me, and were influenced in some small way by the sight, lit a fire in my belly which refused to go out.
I had yet to have my surgeries in those days, or to fully cultivate my aesthetic, let alone take a stage name and run the cafe. But I will always remember that little girl, and the flicker of awe that crossed her peaked features when she saw me for the first time.
INTERVIEWER: (looking at the camera) Ladies and gentleman, we’re joined today by Kasi Lucciano of London—AKA, Famishista the Hunger Artist. For those who don’t know, Famishista runs Cafe Hollow, a prestigious restaurant in the heart of Sacramento where you can pay to watch her starve, while eating in luxury yourself.
INTERVIEWER: (looking at Famishista) Welcome to Good Morning Britain. Thank you for sitting down with us.
F: The pleasure is mine.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve become quite a sensation over the past year, widely billed as a so-called anorexia celebrity. How do you feel about that?
F: I’d object to the term. Anorexia is a mental illness with a high mortality rate, whereas what I enjoy is a sustainable lifestyle. It’s not a disease, it’s an aesthetic; and I’m not sick, I’m beautiful.
INTERVIEWER: Fascinating! Would you say you are practicing a kind of art, then? Hence the title of Hunger Artist?
F: A performance art, definitely, with my body as the canvas. As you’ve touched on, I perform the act of starvation upon myself for a live audience, while they enjoy a lavish meal in a comfortable setting. I believe that juxtaposition is crucial to the appreciation of my show.
INTERVIEWER: To clarify—the juxtaposition of you going hungry, while others eat?
F: (nodding) Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Why is that? What makes it crucial?
F: There’s a lot to unpack in that question. I’d begin, if I may, by highlighting how differently I work from other so-called “social media stars.”
INTERVIEWER: (checking notes) I understand that you aren’t really on social media at all? Apart from your Daily Routine videos.
F: Yes, that’s right. Because if you just want starvation tips, then there are dozens of online videos or content producers who do it better than me. In that sense, I can’t compete. But my shows at Cafe Hollow offer something different: authenticity, and connection. Instead of being a video on your screen, I’m a human in the flesh. Sat right in front of you.
INTERVIEWER: Sort of like the difference between watching a music video, and going to a concert.
F: Precisely. And bringing it back to your earlier question, that’s why the juxtaposition is so important. Customers who attend my shows experience the tangible delight of food, and the same temptations that I face. Conversely, they are more acutely aware of what I must be enduring by choosing to go hungry. Both during the meal, and in my day to day life.
INTERVIEWER: Amazing! It certainly seems to be working for you. I’m told the restaurant turned over half a million in profits last year?
F: It’s a living. Maybe even a life.
INTERVIEWER: What do you make of the criticism surrounding your lifestyle, and your art? It’s so intriguing to see Death’s personal involvement in your career.
F: I’m glad you asked. The best art has always provoked criticism, that goes without saying. Mostly, I ignore the trolls. I’ve had threats against the cafe a few times, but the police have been great, and dealt with everything efficiently.
INTERVIEWER: I was thinking specifically about the controversy over the rise in anorexia cases across the country, particularly from young teenagers who attend your shows and come away… inspired, for lack of better word. How do you feel about teens, some of whom are children, following in your footsteps?
F: How other people live isn’t my responsibility.
INTERVIEWER: Some people would argue that your art provokes a negative influence, especially among those who can’t afford to live a sustainable, non-fatal lifestyle.
F: (long pause)
F: Then stop consuming me. If you as a person, have concerns or criticisms about my art, then why invite me to this program? Why give me airtime?
INTERVIEWER: Excuse me?
F: The more interviews you do, the more pictures you take, the more tickets you buy, the more you fuel me. Realistically, I couldn’t afford to live the way I do, or to undertake the surgeries I’ve had, without customers paying my way. If society doesn’t like the ideals I embody, then it shouldn’t support and promote me in the way that it does.
INTERVIEWER: Are you… are you saying you blame society for enabling your fans?
F: I’m saying—if you choose to raise up idols, then don’t complain when people form religions. That’s all. Because one is a natural consequence of the other.
INTERVIEWER: Um. (laughter) Well, that was an insightful answer. (laughter) And that’s it, we’re out of time! Thank you so much for coming by, Famishista.
F: (blows a kiss to the camera)
“Consume me,” I said, and bared my teeth in a skeleton’s smile.
My words were one part command, one part invitation, one part priest’s blessing in this restaurant of a church. If I said them with less force than usual, with an underlying tang of fatigue, no one seemed to mind.
Perfectly on cue, Death wheeled me to center stage where an empty table awaited, and around us the feast of Cafe Hollow commenced.
Waiters arrived with antipasto platters, layered in rows of salami, sopressata, prosciutto, dripping olives, fresh figs, quartered artichokes, and cubes of provolone. Lobster bisque came after, accompanied by sourdough bread and thick slices of Havarti cheese. The smell of salt, cured meat, and sweet fruit lay heavy in the air, mingling with an undercurrent of fishiness. Our table was served first, then every other table after.
“A beautiful sight,” Death murmured, meaning my untouched plate, already gone cold.
I said nothing. How many shows had I done, over the years? Hard to say. There was a time when I lived for the thrill of each uneaten bite. When I relished the taste of a dry and empty mouth. Hermits of old sought enlightenment in the desert, but I had created the desert within myself and lived in a state of permanent divinity.
Strange how quickly divinity became simply… tedious. My desert was a dull place. I swirled the soup without enthusiasm, dribbling it onto the tablecloth in abstract patterns, while Death crafted a little model of the human body from various meats. He kept giving me little glances, and murmuring quiet jokes. I didn’t have the heart to return his whispered nothings.
Soups and platters were cleared away to make room for Calvados-glazed roast duckling, poached salmon with mousseline sauce, caponata alla siciliana, and Kashmiri lamb. I let my customers choose their mains—more than one, if they wished, because the price of a ticket to Cafe Hollow included the cost of every dish by default.
Perhaps because of how I charged, most of the customers who came to Cafe Hollow chose to dine in the end, regardless of their original intention. They filled the space around me with lolling tongues and chewing teeth, some talking in low voices. A few of the truly devout would join me in my starvation; they, too, sought another way of being.
All a part of the experience. I sat in their midst and tamed the beast of hunger, simply by folding my hands in my lap. But hunger had been a tame thing for a long time, tired and beaten by my own rigor. There was no joy in the struggle or the victory.
It just… wasn’t enough.
“Famishista?” Death placed his hand on mine. He’d abandoned his latest food sculpture to sit next to me, bony face tilted forward with concern. “Is something the matter?
I looked at him. “I think we should break up.”
Cafe Hollow lay hollow, having expelled both customers and staff. The tables were cleaned and scrubbed and polished; giant teeth subjected to brushing.
Only Death and I remained, alone on an empty stage with an empty table between us.
“I don’t understand,” Death said, breaking the long silence. “Was it something I said? Something I did?” The hat spun endlessly between skeletal hands.
“Oh, Death.” If not for the pacemaker, my heart would have faltered. “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m just… so tired of this life.”
“Yes, that’s why we get along!”
“No, no. Not like that.” I wished for cutlery to play with, or a plate to scrape, or an audience to deflect; I wished for something between myself and Death’s sad stare. “I mean, I’m tired of living in this way. Not tired of life itself.”
“Cruel. Oh, you are very cruel.” He dabbed at hollow eyes with a strawberry-scented handkerchief. “Can’t we talk about it? Can you be persuaded otherwise, dear Kasi?”
He must have read the answer in my face, because he took one glance and looked away.
Someday in the future, I thought, someone will ask me, Was that when it ended? When they do, I will smile very sadly and say that our courtship faded one moment at a time, and at no moment in particular. I will say that all relationships must either escalate or end, and that I had ceased to enjoy dying for quite awhile. Since joining Death in death was the only possible escalation, the end of us had been inevitable from the beginning.
Death got up to leave. “You can’t leave it behind—the Cafe, the fame, the life. The identity of Famishista. What else will you do? Who will you become?”
“I don’t know.” I ran shaky fingers over my bare scalp, trying to remember what it felt like to have hair. “I have money saved up, I can sell Cafe Hollow, I can… something.”
Death pouted. “You haven’t thought this through at all!” He lingered by the door, hat crumpled into a lump. “You’ll change your mind. I know you will. I know you, Kasi.”
“And you’ll forget me, Death. You’ll find other loves, other fancies. I know you.”
“I’ll call,” he insisted. “First thing tomorrow. We’ll talk this over and… and we’ll go from there.”
I nodded. He was the sweetest of liars, then and always.
“Goodbye, Famishista,” he said, and left.
Death wrote me a sonnet once, in the third year of our courtship. He put it in an ash-grey envelope and left it under my pillow.
In the morning, I unfolded the slip of paper—only to find upon it the faintest of markings, barely visible on the page.
So much of art and literature and everything else in life is extraneous, not unlike the extraneous flesh of our bodies. Death had simply removed the poem’s unnecessary words, leaving only its beauty to shine.
I still have that poem tucked between the pages of my diary, next to my favorite photo of us. We are smiling arm-and-arm beneath a young oak tree, its leaves blood-tinted by autumn.