The Woman Who Was Hungry

By Lenka Procházková

Translated By Elena Sokol

This story was originally published in English in Artful Dodge, 30/31, 1996 (p. 136-140).

There was a little house. In that little house a little table. On that little table a little glass. In that little glass some water. In that water ten little pills. As they dissolved, a white sludge slowly rose to the surface.


I'll drink it standing, the woman decided, and at the same time I'll look out the window. She drew aside the curtain, the yard beyond the house was empty, beneath a lighted lamp the smudged chalk marks of a children's hopscotch court shone white. She grasped the glass and with a motion of her fist sent the powdery sediment at the bottom to swirling. It reminded her of the round glass paperweight she had once given him. In the middle stood the figure of a night watchman, and when one shook the ball, snow rose all around.


She lifted the glass to her mouth and tentatively moistened the tip of her tongue in the liquid at the bottom. She trembled, then looked thoughtfully towards the refrigerator where a sugar bowl stood, but rejected that idea immediately; it seemed to her like cheating. Instead, she took a deep breath, pressing the edge of the glass to her lower lip, and at that moment an icy hand ran down her back. She turned her head and saw her Death.


Death didn't look at all dreadful. She didn't have a scythe or any other literary requisite. Rather, she appeared like a tired Sicilian woman, all in black, only her hair above her wrinkled face was tied up in a white cloth. "I thought you would come afterward," the woman said weakly.


"A lot of good I'd do bringing you a cross after the funeral!" Death smirked. She sat down on a bench that didn't creak beneath her. After arranging the folds of her skirt, she reached out her long arm. "Can I have a taste?" she asked. The woman handed her the drink. Death sniffed the liquid, examined it against the light.

Then she took a bit into her mouth. For a while she wallowed the mouthful around like a wine taster, then she swallowed, nodding with satisfaction. "That's fine. Now I'll check the documentation. Show me the letter."


"What letter?" The woman grew alarmed.


"Yours. The farewell letter."


"Ohhh. Well, I don't have one, I didn't write any. It didn't seem necessary."


"Not necessary?" Death shouted at her with irritation. "So, madam is introducing her own rules. But those are up to me!"


"Forgive me." The woman grew humble. "Well then, can I type it out right away?"


"Type it out? Are you daft? It's got to be in your own handwriting! "


"You're right," the woman admitted. She took a piece of paper and a pencil out of the drawer. She sat down at the table, chewed her fingernails a while, then got up again and pressed her forehead against the window pane.


"What's the matter?" said Death, fidgeting in her chair.


''I'm thinking about how to formulate it."


"As briefly as possible!" advised Death.


"Of course. But couldn't I first make an outline?"


"Don't hold me up. I've got another rite in an hour. It takes only three paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. In the introduction explain that it's a voluntary act, in the body make clear why you're undertaking it, and in the conclusion name the person who's responsible or, if such is the case, that no one is. And don't forget the date."


The woman took a deep breath. She sat down and quickly wrote the date in the upper right-hand corner. Death bent down over the table. "What kind of pen is that?" she shrieked in irritation.


"A ballpoint." The writing pupil shrugged her shoulders.


"But it's red! This type of letter is written either in black or dark blue. Use red only if it's your own blood." Death tore off the corner of the paper where the woman had written the date, then fished a pen with black ink out of her bosom and gave it to the woman, who removed the cap with hesitation.


"Has someone already used it—for this?"


"Every second person," Death smirked. "The latest was yesterday, some professor. It’s a sorry state of affairs when you can't even find a pen with dark ink in the apartment of a university professor."


“Umm." The woman licked her dry lips. "That professor, how—was it pills, too?"


"No, not pills. In his own way, he was quite a guy—so he used a rope. Except—" Death snickered into her hand— "only he put the hook in badly, then I had to ... But those are already unnecessary details. Don't get distracted; start writing. I've been hanging around here for half an hour. In that much time, someone else makes it all the way to the death throes!"


The woman quickly wrote two lines and then looked at the glass. "Do you think it will hurt?"


"Yes, it will. What did you expect?"


"I imagined I would simply fall asleep."


"You bet you'll fall asleep. After a while."


"Will it take… a long time?"


"It depends how much you weigh. And whether you had supper."


"A hundred and twenty. And I last ate this morning—bread and cheese."


"Then it’ll be fast. No more questions now and finish writing. Mind you, I haven't had any supper either," grumbled Death.


"Would you like me to fix you some eggs? They're fresh. From the countryside. I can fry them for you with onion."


"Onion doesn't sit with me well. Do you have any bacon?"


"Only some lard."


"That's fine. Use about five eggs, with lots of pepper, aber schnell, schnell!!"


The woman opened the refrigerator, took out the lard and eggs and then got the pan ready. "Do you work in Germany too?" she asked, already at the stove.


"Not really!” Death protested. I'm from the Prague cooperative. This year I have Žižkov and part of Vinohrady. I heard the German from a tourist. He ensconced himself in a bathtub at the Hotel Flora and whittled at his veins, the fool. It seems he’d never heard of arteries."


"How did it turn out?"  The woman grew stiff over the pan.


"How indeed? I had to help him. Aber schnell, schnell!" added Death, imitating the tourist." Still, he gave me a decent fee."


“A fee? I thought you came for free?”


"You got that from fairy tales, didn't you? Except I'm real. Can you give me a roll with this?"


"I only have bread."


"The heel then. And you don't have to dirty a plate. I can eat it right out of the pan." Death rolled up her sleeves and bent down over her supper.


"What kind of fee will you want from me? Or is it voluntary?"


"That's only for foreigners. Otherwise, I have set fees. You won't be expensive," said Death, her mouth full of scrambled eggs. Then she swallowed and counted on her fingers. "Drug overdose, that's four hundred. Delay due to writing of letter, a hundred. Loan of official pen, ten crowns. Then an additional charge for special

services, if you want them."


The woman raised her head from the letter. "Special services, what are those?" she uttered in alarm.


"Recitation. A lot of clients like to hear a human voice, so I say a rosary or recite something." Death put aside the pan she had licked clean, took a calculator from her bosom and began to tap out the figures with her bony fingers.


"What did that professor want?" the woman suddenly asked, interrupting her.


"Shakespeare. Sonnet 66: Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry," Death recited clearly, filled with pleasure. "A lot of clients have requested that lately. However, the professor insisted on Saudek's translation, which I didn't know by heart, and so he poked around his bookshelves for quarter of an hour. Yes, he had a way with words—the dilettante—but finding the right place for the hook… And what about you? Will you want special services?"


''I'll go get Robinson Jeffers. ‘The Bed by the Window’,” the woman decided.


"Is it long?"


"One page."


"One page of unfamiliar text," Death mumbled over her calculator. "That's three fivers. Altogether it'll cost you five hundred and forty crowns."


The woman went to the other room and came back with a book and her wallet.


"Leave the wallet on the table. I'll take it afterward. Paying ahead brings bad luck.”.


The woman lifted her glass from the table, swirling the sludge on the bottom with a twist of her wrist.  Then she took a deep breath and swallowed.


"Not so fast, my dear. It's falling into you like into a well. Let's not have to start over.”  Death mumbled behind her back.


The liquid was already half gone when the woman's hand dropped down. "Isn't someone knocking?" she whispered.


"No, it's just your imagination. Now drink it down so I can read to you. It’s really a beautiful poem."


"But I hear someone knocking!" the woman sighed.


"Stop imagining things! Why would anyone knock? You have a doorbell, don't you?"


"Well, I guess I already must be hallucinating." The woman calmed down and took another two gulps. "Will you stay with me till the end?"


"I don't know. Now hurry up! One for mommy. One for daddy, and one for that damn fool…"  The woman put down the empty glass, licked her bitter lips, and shivered. "Can't I have a bite to eat?" she asked.


"It's not worth the trouble. Now," Death added, gently, "lie down instead and make yourself comfortable."


The woman sat down on the linoleum floor, then rolled onto her side, pressing her palm against her stomach. Death stepped over her body, turned on the hot water tap, and carefully scrubbed the cast-iron pan, dried it and put it back in the cupboard. "How are you?" she asked.


"It hurts," the woman muttered.


"Already? Then I'd better get on with the reading!"


By the time Death shut the book, the pounding on the door had turned into kicking, but the woman no longer heard it. Death closed her eyes. She pulled a small camera from her pocket and took a snapshot of the farewell letter. Then she counted out her fee from the woman's wallet.


The door was already breaking at the hinges when Death ripped the phone line from the wall. "So there!" she mumbled, then headed for the living room. She was crawling out the window and into the yard when the door gave way with a crash. But Death knew no damn fool could spoil her work now. Under the lamp she noticed the chalk hopscotch court. She couldn't resist and quickly hopped through it. Then she got on her black bicycle and pushed down the pedal.


She went six streets and stopped at a corner apartment house. She left the bike near the cellar door and ran up to the fourth floor. As she caught her breath and fished around for the universal key inside her bosom, she noticed a familiar smell drifting towards her. She quietly unlocked the door.   She disconnected the doorbell in the hallway and then smashed down the door to the kitchen.


“Just a moment," she yelled. "Hold off for a while!"


"Why?" the next female client asked her listlessly. She lay on a blanket spread out next to the table, reading some text.


Irritated, Death walked around her and quickly turned off the burner on the gas stove. She held out her hand: "So where is the letter?"


The woman, almost poisoned, sighed and handed her some papers.


“It’s typewritten!” Death scowled and read the title: The Woman Who Was Hungry.You call that a farewell letter?" She furiously wadded up the pages and tossed them into the trash. She felt her client's pulse, then took the woman under the arms and pulled her over to the wall. "Now just lean up against this. Here's a pen and paper. First the date, then the introduction. And be brief! Don't play the writer, dear girl. ... "