Cinder Jackson is a patient of Ward 6 at Mystic Mercy Hospital. Cinder is in the hospital because he has not spoken in fifty years. He is not there because he murdered a man by tearing him limb from limb. No one could ever prove that Cinder had done that anyway, even though it happened with hundreds of witnesses in broad daylight.
Cinder lived in the South when he last spoke. It was 1964, and Cinder was six years old. In 1964, Bob Dylan had a new song on the radio. In the song, Bob Dylan said that the times were changing, and Cinder’s dad had gotten himself caught up in that change. Cinder’s dad was black, and a lot of white people in the South at that time did not like the changing times, and they especially didn’t like black people getting caught up in that change.
White people had a word for black people that got caught up in change back then. White people called these black people, “uppity.”
Cinder had once asked his father what uppity meant. Cinder’s father told Cinder that the word uppity meant courageous.
A group of white men killed Cinder’s father.
These white men must not have liked courageous people, seeing as they didn’t show much courage themselves. The white men hid their faces behind white bed sheets, looking like children dressed as ghosts on Halloween, and they snuck onto Cinder’s family’s property. They tied up Cinder and his mother, and they dragged Cinder’s father away. The men then beat Cinder’s father with axe handles and the butts of shotguns, and they hung him in a tree by his neck.
A man named Harold Walker wanted to hang Cinder’s father by his pecker, but a man named George Miller said that would be uncivilized. The other men, Herbert Thomas, Frederick Lee, and George’s brother, Dick, agreed that it was important to be civilized.
Anyway, Cinder’s father was not the only member of that household that was uppity. As it turns out, Cinder was uppity too. In fact, one day in town, Cinder came across George Miller’s son, Sam. Cinder got uppity after Sam told him what he’d heard about Cinder’s father’s death.
Cinder got so uppity, that he knocked out three of Sam Miller’s teeth.
Well, the men that killed Cinder’s father began to wonder if they had an uppity epidemic on their hands, so they needed to set an even bigger example with Cinder than they did with Cinder’s father. After all, if Cinder was this uppity as a child, imagine how bad he would be as an adult.
It was on a day that Cinder walked home from his grandmother’s house that the men got him. They pulled him into the woods that lined the road he was walking on, and they beat Cinder like they beat his father. Only with Cinder, the men used belts instead of axe handles and the butts of shotguns. They did not mean to kill Cinder, they only meant to teach him how not to be so uppity.
This lesson was a service many white people felt they owed black people in the South at this time.
Again, as with Cinder’s father, Harold Walker said that he wanted to hang Cinder from a tree by the boy’s pecker. Harold Walker even went as far as stringing a rope over a tree’s branch, pulling down Cinder’s pants, and tying a noose around the boy’s penis.
It was here that Cinder spoke his last words. Actually, he screamed them. Cinder screamed, “Oh please, help me, Mommy, help me, Mommy.”
Harold Walker was a large man with a deep, low, slow drawl, and in that drawl, Harold Walker told Cinder, “I wanted to do this to your daddy, but I’m just as happy to do it to you. Say goodbye to your pecker, boy.”
Cinder screamed for his mommy as Harold Walker yanked down hard on the rope.
The men broke into laughter. They thought it was funny, because the noose was not tightened on Cinder’s pecker, so when Harold Walker yanked down on the rope, the noose slipped harmlessly off of the boy without causing any damage at all.
Lesson taught. Lesson learned.
Cinder had stopped being uppity. In fact, Cinder didn’t talk to anyone at all anymore. Except, that is, to Dakar.
Often, Cinder’s mother would see her son, when the boy thought no one was watching, talking to himself. When his mother approached him, to see if maybe his spell of silence was over, Cinder would stop. He would look up at her, in silence, with his intense eyes.
When Cinder was born, his father had given him his name, saying that the boy had eyes like two burning cinders.
During these times, when Cinder’s mother thought her son was speaking to himself, Cinder was, in fact, talking to his friend, Dakar. Dakar was a lion. There was a time when others could see Dakar, though he was not as large and as fierce as he is now. Dakar had been small enough for Cinder to carry, and Cinder carried the lion everywhere. Until, that is, Harold Walker had snatched Dakar from Cinder, and tore the lion apart. But Dakar had not died that day. And now, it was Dakar that carried Cinder.
The South held too many horrible memories for Cinder and his mom, so they moved to Harlem to live with Cinder’s aunt, Bernice. Cinder was ten years old when he stood with his mother on a Manhattan street corner. They waited for a bus.
Cinder had just finished another appointment with another doctor. Cinder had seen many doctors. And these doctors all tried to coax Cinder to talk. But Cinder never did talk. Cinder always sat in the big, comfy chair—every doctor seeming to have big, comfy chairs—the boy’s arm hanging over the chair’s side, the boy’s fingers entangled in Dakar’s thick mane. Each of these doctors would glance at the boy’s hand working in the air. One doctor even asked Cinder about this behavior—that’s what doctors call something a person does that the doctor does not understand: a “behavior”—but this doctor may as well have asked the wind why it blew, the doctor received the same answer. The doctors even gave a name to Cinder’s behavior. The doctors called it: “self-stimulatory behavior.” The doctors did not realize that it was simply a child petting his pet.
Now, at the bus stop, Dakar paced back and forth behind Cinder and Cinder’s mother. But only Cinder knew that the lion was there. The bus pulled up to them, and that is when Cinder heard a deep, low, slow drawl, say, “Negros in back,” as a large man pushed past Cinder and Cinder’s mother.
Cinder recognized the voice immediately, though it traveled from over the horizon of four years prior.
Dakar stopped his pacing and stood in a protective stance beside his friend. But Cinder felt no fear when he heard the voice. In fact, he felt something very different.
As the man pushed past Cinder and Cinder’s mother, the man stopped. Harold Walker turned and looked at Cinder’s mother, and then he looked down at Cinder. Strange is the dance of coincidence. Strange that two people separated by time and distance should find themselves together again for no other reason than fate’s amusement.
Harold Walker immediately recognized Cinder’s mother, and he immediately recognized the burning eyes of the child whose childhood he had stolen. Harold Walker recognized Cinder even though Cinder was four years older. Harold Walker recognized Cinder, even though, right there on the street corner, Cinder was changing.
Cinder’s hips lowered into haunches. Cinder’s hands swelled, his nails pushing from his fingertips. Cinder’s hair lengthened into a mane. Cinder’s face contorted, his nose pulling forward into a snout. His teeth became fangs.
Cinder had become a lion, right before Harold Walker’s eyes. Right before the eyes of everyone on that busy street corner.
And what’s more, everyone on that busy street corner could now see Dakar as clearly as they could see the bus, the buildings, the cars, and the woman whose son was now a lion beside her.
Harold Walker tried to speak. He may have actually formed words in some language, but it wasn’t English, and whatever it was, it came out in a high, choked whisper.
Cinder, after being silent for so many years, now had plenty to say, and his words came out as a deafening roar.
Harold Walker ran. He waved his arms as if swimming through the crowded sidewalk.
The lions broke into pursuit.
The people on that busy sidewalk and the people driving along the crowded streets had a difficult time making sense of what they saw. And officials and the media would have a very difficult time explaining what exactly happened on that day in New York City as a man ran screaming along the sidewalk with two lions—weaving in and out of the people in a graceful, relaxed gait—in pursuit. The two cats flanked the man, keeping pace with him, and some would say that the cats seemed, as much as cats are able to make expressions, to be smiling.
The man darted into the street. A cab almost ran him down. Several other cars were screeching to stops as motorists and pedestrians all stopped to gawk at two lions chasing a man down a Manhattan street. Some motorists honked horns. Some motorists locked their doors and cowered in their cars. Some motorists got out of their cars to watch.
Harold Walker darted down an alley. He stopped when he realized it was a dead end. Harold Walker turned to face the opening of the alley.
The two lions ran to the alley’s opening and stopped. The lions entered the alley in slow, stalking strides. The lions’ eyes burned like hot cinders.
Years ago, Harold Walker, among others, had badly hurt a young boy. Harold Walker had ripped apart a small stuffed lion.
Now, Cinder and Dakar were going to return the favor.
“Please. Make him stop.”
The orderly cocked an eyebrow and lowered his newspaper. “There goes Stanley,” he said, dropping his feet off the table and rocking the chair forward onto all four legs. Gary couldn’t remember this other orderly’s name, he just thought of him as the one with the bad bleach job. The guy’s coarse, spiked hair was a pale orange that, along with his thin, black goatee and array of small loop earrings, made him appear intent on looking either boy-band cool, or flamingly homosexual. The guy achieved both goals. Gary also realized, even in the limited time of being in this guy’s presence, that bleach-head here was a concoction of annoying habits—drumming on the table, snapping wads of gum, a relentless use of nicknames. Know what I mean, Champ? Sport? Chief? Catch what I’m saying, Rookie? That was Gary’s most common address, Rookie. “We’ll just let ole Stan hang in there for awhile,” the guy said, finishing a word on his crossword puzzle. “Know what I mean, Guy?”
It was Gary’s first night at Mystic Mercy Hospital. And Gary, at times, felt like it might be his last. Something felt wrong about the place. A monstrous structure that, while housing both a mental health facility and actual medical hospital, still remained half-empty. But the whole island was like that, populated with turn of the twentieth century buildings that weren’t fully used for their intent. Like a Lego village only partially populated by a child’s imagination. Even if Gary kept this job, he doubted if he would actually move on island. Too many stories. Too many strange vibes. But he needed the job, so he guessed he could drive the mile across the bridge each day.
The screams came again. “Please stop him.”
“Shouldn’t we do something?” Gary said.
The orderly flashed his gaze from the paper to Gary. He hung his head to one side, as if saying, Don’t you think I know how to do my job, Rookie? “It’s just Stanley,” he said. “The guy’s fucking cracked.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“I don’t know. They just moved him here from the mainland. Guy thinks someone’s gettin into his dreams or something,” the orderly said, focusing on his crossword and running the pencil’s eraser along his lower lip. He looked up at Gary. “Like I said, fucking cracked.”
Another orderly, Jack, rushed into the office. Jack seemed to be in charge, like some kind of squad leader. He was also the most helpful so far at showing Gary the ropes. “Hey, Fred,” Jack said to the other orderly, “you ever gonna get around to helping Stan?”
“I’m gettin to it,” Fred said, tossing aside the newspaper. “I was just filling in the Rookie here on the technical aspects of Stan-the-man’s case. So you see, Rook,” Fred said, turning to Gary, “technically speaking, Stan-the-man’s fucking cracked.”
“Just get the syringe,” Jack told Fred. Jack turned to Gary, motioning for him to follow. They strode down the halls, further and further into the frantic web of Stanley’s cries. “Actually,” Jack told Gary, “Stan’s a paranoid schizophrenic. The guy’s convinced some kid gets into his brain and messes with his dreams. You should hear what this guy says happens in some of these nightmares.” They stopped outside the room’s door. “You finished all your restraint training, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Gary said.
“All right,” Jack said, unlocking the door, “you hold him down, and when Fred gets in here, he’ll pump Stan so full of Zyprexa it would calm a rhino.” Gary felt he should ask a question, get a better explanation of the plan. Just hold him down? That was a little vague. But before he could say a word, or even take a breath of preparation, Jack threw open the door and plunged into the room. Gary followed. Inside the room, Stanley was on the floor in the throes of a screeching fit. “Hold his feet,” Jack called, smothering Stanley’s back as if it was a live grenade, trying to gain control of the man’s flailing arms. Gary kneeled, straddling Stanley’s ankles, struggling for dominance over the man’s erratic legs. “Careful, he’s a kicker,” Jack called over his shoulder.
Fred and another orderly—Gary thought his name might be Steve—ran into the room. Steve grabbed one of Stanley’s arms, he and Jack stretching Stanley into a prone position. Stanley’s feet bucked, sending numbing pain through Gary’s scrotum. Gary winced, stifling a groan. He shifted to a better position and managed to immobilize Stanley’s legs. Fred sprawled over Stanley and unsheathed a needle with his teeth. He winked at Gary, dug his elbow into the small of Stanley’s back, and jabbed the needle through Stanley’s pajama bottoms. “There ya go, Stan-the-man,” Fred called.
“It’s all right, Stan,” Jack said, “You’re awake, man. You’re safe.”
“I’m not,” Stanley cried. Fred stood from his deed, with another dig of his elbow, and Gary saw Stanley’s profile pressed onto the floor. The man’s wide eyes looked back at him with the helpless, horrific alarm of a cow about to be slaughtered. “He’ll come again. It’s William. He always comes back.”