It began, as most adventures do, with a small spark of inspiration.
Edwin arrived home from work later than usual, and it wasn’t long after the door closed behind him that the walls began to feel too small. Manhattan apartments are not exactly known for their breezy kitchens or sun-drenched bedrooms, and Win’s cramped East village abode was no exception: it was a small place in an old walkup, furniture much too big for its appointments, and he turned his nose up at the faint smell of dog fur that he briefly experienced most days since rescuing from a local shelter. For all its warts, the apartment was not without its charms, for sure, and over time he had grown rather fond of the place and its tasteful patch of exposed brick. Nevertheless it was a common occurrence to find him longing for a life in which his bed didn’t touch three walls. Getting more common, Win noticed as he hung his jacket on the door and went about his return routine. This thought set the bellows of his anxiety to task, heaving to life with the exasperated sigh of an ancient steam ship. Maybe it’s time for a change. He sidled past his dog’s crate, giving a playful scratch to his friend on the way, and fell into the couch. The dog lifted an ear languorously, momentarily interested before returning to the greener pastures of sleep. Antsy after a few moments, Win did what any self-disrespecting millennial would and scrolled through the various feeds on his phone.
Minimalism was in vogue, it seemed, at least in the corner of the internet that Win called his own. What had first begun as a passing curiosity was now a full-bore social media sensation. It was a simple enough premise: Spiritual liberation through disownership, a ritualized release of nonessential material trappings. Like most aphoristic blog-isms its convenience trod rough over the hard truth of letting go of one’s suffering, but the thought that his psyche might one day learn from the example of his home was an intoxicating one. All he had to do was tidy up, after all.
And so it was that he set about cataloguing the various possessions he’d accumulated over five years of life in this city. The easiest items to place on the chopping block were truly trivial; a mug with a mustache printed to meet one’s lip during a deep sip of coffee, an ancient laptop, the boxes for some electronics parts that would never be returned. Some gave him a bit more pause than others as he reminisced, divesting his memories of their effigies before adding items to his pile. These small pangs of memory gave him a brief nostalgic melancholy, but in spite of this he did indeed find some catharsis in the prospect of ridding himself of his trinkets. His bedroom contained little more than its namesake and his clothes — there was scant room for much else — but the perennially overflowing second drawer of his dresser contained no less than thirty-seven t-shirts, and he didn’t move on empty handed after all. After picking out his favorites to keep and tossing the rest in a bag to be donated, he returned past his dog and into the kitchen.
His initial labors bearing fruit, Win felt his spirits lift somewhat as he prepared to rid his life of what had now grown to be a relatively impressive pile of clutter, and he was excited for what was about to come. The kitchen was home to an entire family of pots and pans that lingered unused in his cabinets, and he was eager to peruse them for duplicates to clear out. Before he began he thought he’d inspect the rarely used cabinet above the microwave.
This cabinet was home to all manner of forgotten items, the place for things that neither have nor deserve proper organization. Occupying its sole shelf were, among other items, a coffee-stained manual for a since replaced refrigerator model; a cracked beer stein from a bygone festival; and an inexplicable twenty-four pack of canned Goya black beans. Win recalled thinking that they looked too old and worn to eat when he moved in, and that was the better part of a decade ago. He relished the feeling of swiping them all into his trash can, adding two empty grill lighters for good measure. It was only after the items had been removed that he noticed something odd about the wood grain of the cabinet’s rear wall.
The cabinets themselves were fairly well taken care of, contents aside. Their finish dulled over time, to be expected, and the brassy handles tarnished with age, but Win was a conscientious apartment dweller, and they didn’t see much action beyond the constant traffic of newly washed dishes. What struck Win about this one in particular, however, was somewhat the opposite. The back of the cabinet reflected light with a glossy sheen, lacquered as if it was installed yesterday. Without thinking, he reached out to touch it, leaning onto his toes to reach deeper into the space.
Win had a restless, seafaring soul, and he spent a great deal of time in reverie imagining a much grander existence for himself. When he had the energy, he devoured all the stories he could possess, effortlessly consuming page after page until it felt like they’d spill out his ears. When his eyes closed to blink while strolling in the park he couldn’t help feel a sea breeze in his hair, the weather-worn wood of a ship’s rails pressing gently into his palms, warmed by the summer sun. This yearning was magnified by the drudgery of his day to day existence, and he had been indulging his mind’s wanderings more and more of late. His fantastical senses were firing on all cylinders now, and he half hoped for some sort of static discharge when his fingertip first grazed the surface. His hopes were quickly dashed as he felt little more than a particularly smooth wood, and by all accounts it was proving to be an architectural anomaly of little interest.
Win sighed, pulling his arm from the cabinet and returning it several times, poking and prodding for something to happen. Just as he had begun to laugh at himself for his excitement, on the fifth try he poked the lower corner and it depressed with an unmistakeable click.
The hairs on his neck stood stock straight. Slowly, carefully, Win pulled his hand away, and the false back yawned open a few inches. The air around him felt electric as the steam engine within him lurched to its maximum effort, nerves forming a pit in his stomach. He gently touched the side of the now-open door and it swung wide soundlessly. Inside was a small chamber painted matte blue, so dark it was almost black, and it appeared to devour the light as it entered. Unlike the outer cabinets, it was not squared off, and did not have walls, per se — save for the small flat floor, it was composed exclusively of tessellated triangles, a kind of polygonal half sphere. It was nearly empty save for two small jade pedestals ornamented with gold accents. Upon the pedestals sat a small book and an even smaller magnifying glass.
Breathlessly, Win reached into the chamber and picked up the two objects with all the delicacy he could muster. The thought that they might be somehow booby trapped flashed across his mind a few moments too late, and a momentary panic seized him; when it passed he exhaled, loudly and relievedly, at the surreal situation as much as his fears. His thumb traced the cover of the book instinctively, feeling the raised lettering on its face. It was magnificently produced and ornamentally decorated. Bound with soft chestnut-brown leather, the cover was, well, covered with broguing of tremendous craftsmanship. It bore extravagant designs depicting torrential seas rolling across the back of a fierce dragon that extended around to the spine of the book and beyond. Its title was inlaid with gold leaf, gothic lettering matching the shining edges of the pages sandwiched within that had been painted to resemble a solid gold bar. It read: A BRIEF RECOLLECTION OF EVENTS PERTAINING TO THE STREAM OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS, ITS ACCESS, AND ITS PERILS. I hope the author is better with prose than with titles, Win chuckled to himself.
The book was no bigger than his hand, and about a quarter inch thick. Win opened to its first page and frowned at the grey fuzz within. He stared squinting for a few moments before feeling rather thickheaded, glancing over at his other hand and holding the magnifying glass up to the light. The glass was thick, polished so finely that it almost appeared to be made of water, and it was held in place by a gorgeous jade stem depicting a feathered claw with four pincer-like talons. As he rotated it in his fingers, prismatic splashes of light danced from the wall, to his shirt, to his face, and back. After experimenting a bit with the focal length, he was able to make out the page’s text clear as day, printed with every bit as much care as the cover.
Win looked up at the now empty space, collecting himself for a moment. This was definitely not how he intended to spend his Monday eve. At this point he was way too far beyond how ridiculous this all seemed — almost in shock. Not knowing what else to do, he closed the chamber and cabinet doors, put on a kettle of water for tea, and retreated to his usual spot on the couch. Stealing himself once more, he turned on the lamp and began to read.