Fred had routines. They were always there—routines and habits, all in a particular order, and a part of everything Fred knew. His routines could be listed easily: he double-checked locks and lights, counted steps from one room to the next, and timed the seconds between swallowing food one bite of food and taking another. Often, he overheard the words obsessive-compulsive disorder bandied about.
Disorder. Ironic how a methodical maintaining of order is labeled as the exact opposite. Though sometimes, too, they might just be the same thing.
On that particular night, before going to bed—just like every night before going to bed—Fred opened the refrigerator to inspect his eggs. Fred ate six eggs every day. Rhule’s Bodega on 14th Street sold half-dozen cartons. Fred ate two for breakfast, two for lunch, two for dinner. He would vary how he cooked the eggs and what vegetable he might serve with them. And every afternoon at 2:30, he would purchase another carton for the next day’s three meals. He routinely inspected the eggs in-store to ensure they were unblemished, but Mr. Diego, the owner of the bodega, stood by his products and was never known to have sold a bad egg.
That evening, the light from the refrigerator poured into his dark, one-bedroom apartment in Alphabet City like a ghost on the precipice of a good haunt. Pressing the tiny tab on the 100% recycled paper carton and lifting the lid, Fred touched each egg. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. He felt their smooth coolness and turned each egg 360 degrees in its nest.
It was upon the sixth egg that Fred noticed the crack in the shell, ominously shaped like gritted teeth. He sat at the kitchen table, contemplating the significance of the crack, and wondering why now, just as he was starting to become comfortable with his routines, they were suddenly being disrupted.
“And this crack kept you awake all night?” Fred’s therapist wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches. He was a bald, bearded, squinty-eyed, older man who continually pulled his glasses off and placed them back on again. On the phone, he often used five-dollar words such as solipsism and epistemic justification, but in person, he mostly mumbled and asked ambiguous questions.
“That was Tuesday evening,” Fred explained, rubbing red eyes. It was Friday now. “I haven’t slept since Tuesday.”
The therapist jotted something down on a writing pad, mumbling vapid phrases like, “I see,” and “Right, right, right.” To date, he had extracted and discussed at length a good number of unresolved moments and circumstances from his client’s past: the pair of car accidents, his father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, the horse carcass that showed up on his front lawn one morning when he was six, and, of course, when his wife Pippa—who was never the most present in his life—cleaned out his bank account before finally disappearing altogether because the two of them couldn’t find a way to fix a damn thing after the death of their daughter, Alice. To the therapist, a crack in an egg bought from a bodega on 14th Street might have seemed an insignificant scar in comparison.
Amidst his thoughts, Fred noticed the room had gone quiet. There was an extended, muffled deadening in the room. Like he had water in his ears. There was a throbbing pain between his eyes, too.
The therapist said, “Isn’t that how cracks start though?”
Fred was unsure if he’d missed the part of the conversation that came before this. Uncertain if he heard his therapist’s full opinion on the matter of the eggs. Was he saying this was all just a precursor for some bigger problem? Fred doubted he would receive any clarification, but he asked anyway. “What are you getting at?”
A few more words of varying insignificance passed between the two of them, until the therapist’s eventual suggestion of trying hypnotism as a means of erasing the memory of the cracked eggshell. “And maybe it could help with some of the other grief you still hold on to?” he added.
Fred stuck a finger in one ear. There was a wiry ear hair, and he tugged at it, quickly pulling it out before blowing it off his fingertip. “The stuff about Pippa? Am I still holding onto that? And what about Alice?”
Without taking his eyes off of Fred, and in one smooth motion, the therapist opened his desk drawer, removed an item and placed it on the table. The object had a shine to it, but his hand masked it, fingers splayed like talons. “Technically, these . . . difficulties of yours are suppressed. And suppressing the damaging bits is so much more harmful in the long run.” He removed his hand and Fred could see the item was a soap bar-sized rock, though it shined like a mirror. It wobbled a little on the desktop as the therapist released his hand, and the reflection of the office, and the two men within it, jumped back and forth on the rock’s surface. Fred hated it when his therapist referred to grief as difficulties.
Any previous form of drug therapy had been exhausted, as Fred’s body only wanted to reject any pill he tried putting inside it. Hypnotism was a new one though. He’d been seeing this therapist for nearly six months, and the word hypnotism had never come up. At least, not that he could recall. Fred admitted hypnotism wasn’t something he felt comfortable with, but what he didn’t admit was that it was because he still had many trust issues to work through. The therapist rubbed the surface of the mirrored stone with his index finger and asked him if he was really so sure. “There are many other different forms of therapy we can look at, too.” Then he scribbled an address down on the back of a torn page from his daily calendar and slid it across the desk to Fred.
The address was for a place in the Bowery. It was an office on the building’s third floor, above a record store; its red brick exterior was covered with vibrant green ivy, still dew-speckled from the crisp morning. Fred notoriously showed up for appointments early, but disliked waiting with nothing to do. He had twelve minutes to kill, the same amount of time he always found himself wondering what to do with, so he went inside the record store.
He was the only customer inside, and the clerk waved a cheerful hello. Fred perused the collection for some minutes before taking a vinyl copy of something familiar, though he couldn’t place what made it familiar. He inspected it for scratches, took it up to the counter, fumbled some answers to the clerk’s inane questions about the weather, then paid for the album and left a tip behind in the provided pickle jar.
There was an intercom outside the building, and upon pressing it, Fred was immediately buzzed up. There was a small handful of mailboxes in the lobby, none of them with business names. It appeared this might not be an office, but simply a walk-up apartment. Baffled a little by the address his therapist instructed him to find and what alternative therapy he might soon be discovering, Fred proceeded up the staircase. Paint flaked away from the railing and he picked some off like it was dead skin. He knocked on the door, which was opened by a young woman with matted hair, two nose piercings, and a hissing black cat tattooed on one shoulder.
“Is this an office?” Fred asked.
“An office is where business is done, is it not?” The woman had a faded Eastern European accent.
“That’s not really an answer,” he said.
She raised a shoulder apathetically, moving aside to allow him in. Some bracelets jangled along with her. The small walls were decorated with Forest-themed tapestries and strings of holiday lights—half on and half off—decorated the small walls. There was a circular rug on the living room floor with an image of a white wolf at a mossy well. Fred held his heart for a moment when he realized he hadn’t counted his steps from the hallway to where he was now standing.
The young woman nodded to the album under his arm. “You bought a record?”
“From the shop downstairs.” Fred lifted it for another look, but the cover didn’t look the same as it did when he first saw it. “I’m not sure why I purchased it though, since I don’t even own a record player. My daughter used to.”
“They sell damaged records,” she said with spite, like there was some bad history there. Fred shook his head, explaining how he’d examined it for scratches before paying for it. Waving an uninterested hand, she said, “Take another look.”
He slid the record out of its case. Indeed, there was now a scratch on one side. In the shape of gritted teeth, exactly the same as the crack he’d discovered on the egg a few days before. Fred jumped back a little when he felt the woman’s hand on his neck, just below his ear.
“I can see the cracks in yourself that are in need of repair,” she said.
She moved both of her hands onto the tip of Fred’s chin, then his chest, and finally on one forearm, squeezing it softly. “Here, here, and here,” she told him as her hands wormed along his body.
“Is this why I’m not sleeping?”
She clawed at her bare, sinewy arm aggressively. Fingernails dug into one of the eyes of the cat tattoo. “This, and the grief for your daughter. Alice, right?”
“How did you—”
“You need to bring me the root of a Sonatis sulcuphemis.”
She could not have said anything else right then that would have made any less sense to Fred. All he could do was stare, stupefied.
“Sonatis sulcuphemis. It is a butterfly,” she clarified. She waved one hand around at the wrist, searching the space for a further answer. “The root is the butterfly’s . . . shell?”
“A cocoon, you mean?”
“Yes, a root.”
“Where would I even begin to look for such a thing?”
The woman sat down in a wide wicker chair full of sparkly, sequined pillows of many colors and she explained to Fred how she could give no further direction, as it would influence the outcome. And that Fred must uncover the item in question on his own.
“And finding a butterfly’s cocoon is going to help me?” Fred caught himself recalling his therapist’s suggestion of hypnotism, of alternative forms of therapy, and how he’d then been sent to this apartment. “This is why I’ve come here?”
“It is the first step.”
“And where will my last step take me?”
Chaos. It sounded like the last thing Fred needed in his life. The young woman leaned forward in the big chair. She had three missing teeth. Black gaps in her mouth like dead space in the cosmos. The opposite of the gritted-teeth cracks he was recently discovering in things he touched. With a dire seriousness, she said, “I know why you cannot avoid keeping order in your life, Fred. It is because you haven’t yet learned to tend to your chaos.”
Fred left the apartment wondering if the sudden tingling on his brain and the haze he was seeing had anything to do with his therapist’s suggestion of hypnosis.
Fred still hadn’t slept. The next morning, he turned to see a note had been slipped beneath his door. He unfolded the paper and read an address with the words ‘Wunderkammer Collection, Inc.’ written beneath it. The address was close to Chinatown, only a short subway ride away, but Fred elected to walk the distance instead of riding the train on a Sunday, as Sunday crowds were one more thing he was careful about avoiding. One more thing. Even by walking, he could still make it to Rhule’s Bodega by 2:30 for more eggs later that afternoon. Fred hesitated slightly over the impending disruption of his routine, but the chaos of unknown addresses and a potential witch looking for a butterfly cocoon were already seeping into his days. When he arrived, however, the wrought iron gate was locked. There was no buzzer anywhere to be seen, no signage that he could read.
Fred allowed a moment for himself, and braced his body against a garbage bin, contemplating his reasons for finding his way outside a crumbling building in Chinatown. His mind was a jumbled mess, but it soon opened up and began unraveling on its own, like a heavy fog lifting past a forest trail. Fred felt like he’d just woken up, or snapped out of a trance. He instantly recalled the cover of the record album he’d purchased the day before, and a memory of his daughter having had the same album came to him. It was on Alice’s bedside table. Fred remembered it from when he cleaned everything from her room for the last time.
He tried the gate once more but it wouldn’t budge, so Fred walked back up north through the city, walking all the way to the bodega and he bought a half-dozen eggs at 2:30.
When he returned to his apartment, he placed the carton in the refrigerator. He’d already inspected the eggs five times, turning them all and checking for cracks. The recently-purchased record was still sitting on the kitchen counter. He froze for a moment, but eventually reached for it, only to have the vinyl disc slip out of the case and fall behind the refrigerator. It made a terrible sound, scraping the wall and hitting the tiled floor. Fred wasn’t sure if moving the refrigerator would cause the eggs and glass jars and jugs within it to break, so he removed everything from inside, even the vegetables, before teetering and leveraging the large appliance away from the kitchen wall.
Fred reached down to retrieve the record, and that’s when he saw the thing growing out of his floor. The tiles were split, but still mostly intact. It looked like a thick root, but from another world, with a powder-blue stripe running lengthwise, and curled, pink filaments growing sporadically all over it. As much as it didn’t look like a cocoon, it certainly appeared as how the young woman described it—a root—and Fred knew it was exactly what she had told him to find. Sonatis sulcuphemis, he recalled. And he wondered, How long has this thing been growing out of my kitchen floor? Very carefully, he severed it with a kitchen knife. He slumped to the floor and considered everything he’d known about order in his life, and then thought about how tired he was. Fred cradled the sticky root in his hands, he visualized the crack in the egg and the on the vinyl record, the knife thrown haphazardly on the counter in a dripping, filthy mess alongside the scattered items he’d removed from the refrigerator. If allowing in a bit of chaos was the key to it all, then so be it. He left his apartment immediately to return to the strange woman’s apartment above the record store.
There was a ritual of sorts that night. Its setup was very routine-like, and the woman made sure the order of it all was properly executed. Candles were set around the floor’s mandala-like pattern, which had been previously covered by the rug with the white wolf design on it. Incense was carefully selected and the woman had triturated the recently-retrieved root, mortar and pestled into some other unidentified and unnamed foraged materials. Fred was splayed on the living room floor, the smelly, pasty concoction smeared over his closed eyelids and beneath his nose. The woman continued to scratch at her cat tattoo like the both of them were finding difficulty in sharing the same space.
Before the ritual had begun, the young woman extricated a butterfly from the strange cocoon. The creature had beautiful cobalt-blue wings edged with sparkling gold. It fluttered immediately onto the woman’s shoulder, perching itself onto the very tip of Tattoo-Cat’s black tail, whereupon an otherworldly glow emanated from the mysterious insect. The woman pretended the butterfly was not there.
At first, Fred saw only darkness, as black as the gaps in the woman’s teeth. And he heard only a slight humming, like the white noise his own refrigerator generated. He’d lost track of time, in fact, time didn’t seem to hold much meaning in the state he was in, but somehow he felt okay with it. It didn’t take long before the emptiness birthed tiny glows—miniature dots of phosphorescent colors: yellows, oranges, pinks, greens, and blues. Thin strings began connecting the dots into spider-web-shaped rainbow threads. It was nothing like the gaudiness of Times Square at night, but he could feel a purpose to it all. Structure. Order.
Amidst the beautiful web of color a severed thread appeared. Fred reached for it, and he wished for nothing more than to repair it. He searched for another line he might connect the thread to, hoping to fuse them together. But the more he reached and splayed his fingers and outstretched his arms, he discovered the threads became more chaotic. The lines whipped around recklessly, like live electrical wires, their tips glowing brighter than the rest of the colors around them. And within everything, amidst the chaos, Fred saw it. He saw it all. The grief he held onto, the cracks within himself—all of it was right in front of him. But there was no longer anything sad or hurtful about it, no pain attached to any of it. His daughter smiled at him and mouthed some words he couldn’t hear but he knew exactly what it was Alice was saying. And right then, there on the floor of the supernal apartment in the Bowery, Fred made sense of the disorder.
The woman left Fred alone on her floor, and she stepped toward the open window. Allowing the sparkling blue butterfly onto the back of her hand, she presented the outside world to it. The butterfly hesitated at the darkness for only a fraction of a moment, before fluttering out into the city, soon to be dancing within the caverns between skyscrapers.
When the young woman turned back, the candles were out and Fred was no longer in her living room. Only the dark unknown and a barely-visible, thin line of blue energy remained on her floor, which she covered back up with the wolf rug. She pulled a record from her shelf, placed the disc upon her player, and listened closely.