Saramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction almost full time after years of writing ad copy and corporate literature. She has lived and worked in Italy, New York, San Francisco and Dubai. She recently completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short work has appeared in Fogged Clarity, The Literati Quarterly, and Thin Air; and her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. She is working on her first novel, Meaning Machine, about a family’s incompatible coping strategies in the face of loss.
AXIOM OF THE EMPTY SET
Don’t imagine emptiness as loneliness. Though it’s true that this dun-colored grid extends in every direction from where you stand, remember that emptiness is nothing less nor more than the place we start—and you are the God of Emptiness. Here, the stories are all your stories. The physics, geopolitics, mythology, quantity of moons, rules of gravity, mating habits of species, denseness of atmosphere, sky hue are up to you. Taxonomize. Send the planet spinning with a careless hand. Tap your foot and rend the tectonic plates; breathe and watch the jungles froth up—animals creep from the sea. They die and their bones petrify in the silt. Inhale and the oceans dry, leaving salt flats. A long, straight road runs through the salt flats, where you drive alone, listening to a radio evangelist. He asks his caller about the time she saw the devil and she says, He wore a straw hat.
Light a cigarette. Look: There’s the spot at the side of the road where your husband left you. There’s a cross, stuck in the ground, to commemorate a death that feels like yours but isn’t. Someone’s affixed a rabbit skull to it and left a bouquet, now dry and rustling. Down from here’s the car dealership that sold you the LeBaron with the dented door for the cash in your pocket. A sad flag hangs limp on a flagpole. You never saw your husband again. This emptiness isn’t loneliness made manifest—it’s a world, waiting for its creator! Turn the car around and drive back to the cross at the roadside. Look down the length of the road: This road is the x-axis of your life. Look above you at the blazing white of the heavens: The y-axis is the zenith of the sky. Hug yourself. Listen to the rustling of the dry flowers. They have something to tell you. They whisper about a buried secret you can almost remember.
Let’s start with an axiom, the essence of what we know. Y, we know, walks into a saloon that stands in the middle of a planar surface. He removes his hat and wipes his brow. His hand is freckled and it still holds a gun. The gravity in the room changes: Men feel heavier in their seats. A slight smell of cordite and smoke wisps from the gun. Y places the piece on the bar. The barrel points halfway between the bartender—a portly, red-nosed man with a canker on his lip—and another patron: a wizened old salt in a sun-bleached straw hat. A row of animal skulls lines the walls all the way around the room. No one in the saloon looks at Y. Y lifts the gun and this time he slams it down on the bar. Now everybody looks. The salt’s hand twitches on the varnished surface of the bar. The bartender hums nervously under his breath, sucks air in between his teeth. And then time stops. (We can do this: stop time). Who, we wonder, is X? Bartender or Salt? Reduce the information to a formula; construct a proof. Time resumes. Over in the corner, on her poorly lit dais, X dances. If anyone were watching her, they’d see in her face the razor-blade sadness of the marooned. She has a heart tattoo above one breast, but no heart beneath it. Each year it gets harder to hide. Still dancing her languid steps, she reaches into her skirts and removes the bone-hilt derringer Y gave her long ago.
On the crosstown bus I watched the city erode. We shuddered from one stop to the next, and at a certain juncture its hydraulics groaned as it knelt to receive a passenger. The passenger was a man of average height in pinstripe pants creased at the knees, an untucked button-down shirt, and a jacket over his arm. He wore a wicker fedora. He had no skin or flesh on his face, just white bone, grinning. A dried flower winked at me from his boutonniere. There was a hole above and between his eye sockets that stared like a third eye. No one looked up as he walked down the bus aisle and stopped before my seat. He waited politely. I scooted over to the window seat so he could sit next to me. He tipped his hat and extended his hand.
“Are you supposed to be death?” I said.
“In a way,” he said. “But not him him.”
“Am I going to die?” I asked.
He considered this, twirling his hat. “Eventually,” he said. “Why aren’t you driving?”
“The LeBaron’s in the shop,” I said. Then I said, “I hate that car.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” he said.
“I did things for money,” I said.
“No,” he said.
I paused. “I killed a man,” I said.
He stared at me out of his three empty eyeholes until I said, “I killed my child.”
He nodded. The bus was taking us far away from anything I’d ever seen. The road was no longer paved. We bounced and jerked. Each time I was thrown against the man with the hat, he gently righted me in my seat.
“I was going somewhere,” I said, suddenly anxious.
“Where were you going?” the man asked.
“Certain…coordinates,” I said. I put my hand against the window. Against my palm the glass was cool and dry and covered with tiny pits and grooves.
There wasn’t anyone on the bus except the man and me. I guess all of the other passengers had gotten off somewhere. The sky outside was a murky green like the bottom of the ocean. The atmosphere was dense and blurred. I could see huge shapes lumbering by at a distance, but I couldn’t tell what they were.
“I’m so tired,” I said.
“Sleep,” said the man, balling up his suit jacket. “Put your head here.”
I put my head on his shoulder. It was softer than one would expect of a man made of bone. I didn’t open my eyes even when the bus stopped jostling and once again I could hear the sounds of the city outside the window.
Once there was a flat desert land that had a single hill. Grasses grew on the hill, and at its summit was a tall, wide-branched tree. Because it was the only tree in the land, terrible wars took place over its ownership, and the hill’s grasses were often dun-colored because they were poisoned with blood. The Bone Tribe went into battle with animal skulls affixed to their helmets. The Moon Tribe wore two sets of horns in the shape of crescent moons on their heads—one for each moon in the sky. In the Bone Tribe there was a beautiful maiden who wore a necklace of animal skulls around her neck. It was the duty of this maiden to offer herself to the most powerful warrior of the opposing tribe in the instance of a truce. One day, after a period of great bloodshed, the two tribes decided on such a truce. The chief of the Bone Tribe, in his headpiece of woven straw, pointed with his dagger up the hillside. The maiden walked alone up to the tree, where the Moon Tribe’s most powerful warrior was waiting for her. His lunar horns were made of hammered gold. He smiled and opened his arms to her, and they lay in the grass beneath the spreading branches of the tree. They watched the moons through its branches. The warrior sang her a folk song in praise of mother-moon and father-moon, and the maiden told him the tale of her necklace, which had the skulls of the animal-gods that watched over her people. At the end of the night, neither the maiden nor the warrior wanted to go back to their tribes. She removed her necklace, climbed up the tree, and laced it through the highest branches. The warrior climbed the tree and placed his golden helmet next to it. Then, sadly, they returned to their people. The maiden bore the warrior a child. When she refused to offer herself to another man, the chief of the Bone Tribe ordered that she and her child be left in the desert to die. Each night the warrior climbed the hill, waiting for the maiden, and each night that she didn’t come he lay down and watered the grass with tears. Finally he died where he lay, and a spring bubbled from the ground beneath him. The tree flourished and the grasses became green. The two tribes never fought over the hillside again. From far away, if you look hard, you can see the glint of bone and the flash of gold in the tree’s topmost branches.
A sleeping woman dreamed of a puzzle. In her dream, a powerful warrior was running late for a meeting. He drove his open-top car from home at an average speed of 86 mph. He soon reached the airport where a private plane waited. He boarded the plane and flew toward a conference at his corporate offices at an average speed of 455 mph. As the warrior flew, he made notes in his leather notebook:
∃y∀z(∃w(z∈w∧w∈x)⟹z∈y) (There was a union such that…)
He locked the notes in his briefcase. At the last moment he asked his pilot to make a detour. Where they landed was so flat they didn’t need an airstrip. The warrior got out of the plane. He picked flowers as he walked to specific coordinates. He noted a number of animal skulls strewn about, baking in the sun, and picked one up, running his thumb around the socket of its eye. He traced the outline of a heart on his chest with his fingertip, above the spot where a heart was tattooed on his flesh. After nineteen minutes he got back in the plane. He was no longer holding the flowers or the skull. The detour added one hour, forty-four minutes to his trip. The entire distance traveled was 1,720 miles. The trip—car ride and plane—took him a total of 4.45 hours. It cost the warrior’s company $24,348 to fly him to the conference, where he was the keynote speaker. The sleeping woman rolled over, her mind full of times and rates and distances. Why, she wondered, did the warrior look so sad? Look at his hands tremble! She saw his thoughts. He thought, I’m sorry, and twisted his wedding ring of hammered gold around his finger. He thought, with lust, of removing his bone tie clip, slipping the tie over a branch of the myrtle tree near his corporate offices, in full view of the conference-goers, the spider phones, and Angie with her too-short skirts. He wanted to swing there, dead.
I lived in a world with a red sky, and then I lived underground in a little cave right at the x-y intercept. One axis was the road. The other was the zenith of the sky. Sometimes a woman came and stood on the surface of the earth, right above my cave, singing a song I recognized from long ago. Above her hung the bone-colored moon. The woman’s stories had two moons in them, and a lost-love-tree that grew alone in the waste. She knew I was there, but she didn’t know I could hear her. I couldn’t answer, or sing along with her—just a ghost—but my dreams pulsed up at her, and sometimes I thought she could sense them, our conversation. Her songs trickled down, trickled down into my nest. Something grew out of the ground above where I lived, a little white tree to which someone had tied wildflowers and an animal skull, and she fell to her knees beside it. She whispered into the earth. Her tears trickled down along with her song, through the silt until they reached my cave and formed little stalactites. She left me in this place, long ago, off to find help, because she was too weak to carry me, and at the time she didn’t want to.
I sank farther and farther into the sediment. I was by now a collection of little objects, no longer a discrete being. Before I disappeared entirely, I wanted to cast a forgetting spell on the woman. For a year I collected my materials: tears, quartz, borax, and the milk of the moonlight. Then I was ready. When the woman returned, I used my potion on her. The woman was in the middle of the song about straw-hat-man, who had three eyes, and suddenly she couldn’t remember the words. She stood, looked to the right and to the left, her tears drying in the dry air. She brushed off her skirt. She pulled her hair back from her face, tying it with a rubber band. After a moment she got into her car and left. But my spell hadn’t been powerful enough. The woman came back here to the x-y axis, and stood hugging her shoulders. She watched the road and the plane as though they were new: as though she had imagined them into being. Standing like that, she was wracked with the pain of the creator. Pain nagged and niggled at the margins of her mind. I started my spell over again, weaving carefully, thoroughly this time. Finally the last wave of forgetting engulfed her. Mind empty, she drove off again, this time forever, to start a new life in the city.
I hadn’t thought about how much I would miss her. I longed for her—oh! Each night, until I’m completely gone and have turned into another thing, I’ll think about the woman I lost twice. Each night her stalactites erode. Each night I settle deeper and farther into the earth. Each night another sedimentary deposit is layered over my grave, overseen by the moon alone.
Once there was a woman who had two pimps: a freckled gangster and his very old father, who wore an old straw hat that no longer fit him. One day a powerful businessman came into the saloon where the woman worked, saw her dancing, and fell in love with her. The gangster sized the man up, sidled up next to him, and named a price. The man negotiated, but eventually let himself be talked up to the original number.
The businessman and the woman spent the night together. The next day the woman’s heart pounded as she loaded the gun her pimps had given her and hid it in her skirt. She and the businessman ran away together. When, two years later, she became pregnant, she and the man each got a heart-shaped tattoo on their breasts, and from that moment their hearts beat at exactly the same time. They didn’t think they could be happier. But two years was enough time for the gangster’s father to catch up to them. By this time he was a very old man, with sunken eye sockets and flesh that had shrunk around his bones. He found them outside a rest stop on the interstate, and they watched as he slowly limped across the asphalt. He wore a desert flower in his lapel. When he reached them, he said nothing to the woman. He stood outside the car with the businessman, and the two men spoke for a long time. The woman, frightened, couldn’t hear what they were saying. She huddled inside the car. She fingered the gun in her pocket until it was warm with the heat of her hand. Before the old man shuffled away, he tipped his hat to her. The businessman got into the driver’s seat next to the woman. She could tell that their heartbeats were out of sync. The businessman sat for a long time, saying nothing. Then he pounded the heels of his hand on the steering wheel. He turned the key in the ignition and drove to certain coordinates. He gave the woman all the cash in his pocket—quite a lot—and told her to get out of the car. When she did, he drove off.
The woman’s heart emptied out. She stayed in the same spot until she gave birth—a tiny boy, eerily quiet, by whom she was spooked and saddened. She told herself she was leaving the child in order to find help, but when a motorist picked her up, she didn’t go back for him. She didn’t go back for him when she was dropped at a car dealership, or when she was on the road in her own car. Instead, she drove to the saloon where she used to work, and the father of the freckled gangster, who now breathed with the help of tubes in his nose, tipped his hat and ordered the bartender to give her a drink.
For two more years she danced. One day the gangster came in sweating. His gun smelled like it had just been fired. He was a petty gangster, and this was his first taste of violence, but the whole bar could tell he had liked it and it wouldn’t be his last. Deliberately, the woman removed her gun from her skirts and shot the gangster in the leg. He fell, screaming. While he writhed on the floor, she walked over to his ancient father. He sat on a barstool next to his oxygen tank. She put the hot gun against his forehead, above and between his eyes. He smiled at her almost lovingly. He knew that this was his end, had always known. All that could be heard was the rasp of his breath and the syncopated drip-drip of the tap in the sink.