You’d have thought it was a mad scientist who gave me the Emptiness Machine, but that’s not true. It was a poet.

I saw the poet three times before the world became so scattered he was impossible to find. Each time, in the few moments it took for him to retreat out of reach again, I asked him how he came by the Machine.

The first time, he told me it had been given to him by a woman who promised it would make him the greatest poet in the world. He believed her. Poets can be naive.

The second time, (I found him sobbing, so there was not much time to talk. This he shouted as he vanished in the distance—) he said her promise had been one of happiness. You see, both the poet and the procurer had misunderstood the function of the Emptiness Machine.

The third time, he said nobody had given him the Machine. He said he’d dreamt it up himself, one night before going to bed. He scribbled down a few ideas for a new poem, about a mysterious machine that came to be in a far corner of the world. Its existence would be a secret known only to poets. Its name would lend itself to misrecognition: The Emptiness Machine would not be one of destruction. It wouldn’t suck the world in; it would not obliterate. It would only create emptiness. Vast, unfillable emptiness, unlike any we’ve known before. (I think of all the empty things in my old life: the jar of gran’s last jam—seven years in the ground and her jam still just as sweet until the very last spoonful; a sonogram with a dark circle in the middle; vacated drawers in a house otherwise full; even the only letter my father ever sent me—all he managed, an empty envelope with his address in the top left corner. Had we really not known such emptiness before?) And in the morning, the poet said, there it was, next to his bed, the Emptiness Machine—cold, shiny, incomprehensible, surrounded by nothing. It had already expanded the inside of his bedroom so far that he could hardly make out the room’s empty walls in the distance. He said he strapped the idling Machine onto his back and came to find me that very morning.

And indeed, that’s how I remember it: he showed up on my doorstep, early on a cold January morning, his eyes distant, underscored by dark circles, his hands shaking more than was usual for the man. I helped him unload his burden. He didn’t explain what the Emptiness Machine did. He simply asked me if I could hold onto it, because he couldn’t. “It’s too much for me,” he said. “If you love me, you will accept this gift.” And so I did, because poets can be naive, but lovers can be even worse.

I wonder if the story he told me would have changed, had I managed to find him a fourth time. But everything now is wastelands apart. The Machine towers over my living room, silent, sleek, larger-than-life; I spend forever trying to get from the couch to the table, from the table to the kitchen counter (and for what—thirst and hunger are now miles away from the place where I exist). When I manage to get out of the house, it takes longer and longer to find people—first weeks, then months, soon, I’m sure, years. And even when I do, the emptiness breeds more emptiness, in such a way that people end up always already too far away. You see, you can never turn off the Emptiness Machine. I glimpse things—mirages of cities, a forest, a tower, the ghost of an echo—receding in the distance, fading further and further away. The world is fragmented and broken, filled to the brim with static. In these moments, I try to understand—why did the poet call the Machine a gift? How could this be a gift?

So, mostly, I stay in these days. The inside of my house is now a massive pause. An endless walk, like the ones I used to take to clear my head. Sometimes I fall asleep mid-motion. In my dreams, I find myself walking on a beach—deserted, of course, what else—along an empty sea of ebbing foam and fading waves. The beach goes on and on, as far as I can see. I am tired. I let my body crumble. I burrow my palms into the sand and, there, irrationally, I find things I thought I’d lost or forgotten, the way ephemera tend to get swept along by the crowd of our lives: pairs of cinema tickets to movies I watched on my own, party favours from the wedding of a once-best friend, the chain from a lover’s neck, old shoes left behind after a move. I wake up as I start depositing the things back into the beach only to find the sand scattering, the beach moving away from me, leaving me with all these things I no longer know how to hold in my hands.

And still such a long way to go. I am determined to find my way out of the house again, one more time at least, one last reach. From where I stand, I can make out the remote outline of my couch. I remember exhaustion—the word, not the feeling. What a crater of a word, its meaning almost out of sight. I speak: a pouring out of words. No receiver, no point, no end. Is this how the poet does it? How he used to do it, long ago?

I keep walking, my mind on long stretches of time. Longitudes, longing. I ask myself what will happen if the world reaches a point where it cannot stretch any further. Will our bodies start expanding, far-reaching, hollowed out, echoing the static of the world’s emptiness? I imagine this body vast, my skin stretched so far it has become transparent. A simple motion—touching a finger to my brow, taking a drag on my cigarette, scratching that itch in my toe—becomes so elongated it resembles the movement of a planet. Light years from now, the poet and I become infinite, and in our infinity we meet each other again. The emptiness within cancels out the one that surrounds us. Our boundaries become indistinguishable as we spread, paper-thin, into the world. Difference fades, the way salt dissolves in water. Then, a great joy arises. The naming thing inside loses its dominion. Meaning fails. No more reaching now, no more quest. Poetry in reverse. Maybe that is the gift.

Or maybe not. I have been walking towards my front door for weeks. As I reach for the doorknob, a thought crosses my mind: the poet may have simply presented the Machine as a gift because he believed that would coax me into accepting it. Who knows? Tracing and retracing my empty steps on the long way out, I listen to the static of the world and ponder this—as if one could ever fathom the motives of a poet.


© Natalia Theodoridou
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Natalia’s interview]