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Friday Feature: Clynthia Burton Graham

Clynthia Burton Graham is a fiction writer whose creative muse is forged from an amalgamation of a New England upbringing- steeped in ghost stories and folk lore- mixed with the raucous chatter of her grandmothers and five aunts sitting at the kitchen table as well as her father’s booming Sunday sermons. Pool these together with being a child of the Black Power Sixty’s and 30 years of working with inner city children and families you understand the timeless elements of love, humor, and drama in her prose. Her work is centered on Black female characters who strive for their definitions of love, life, and light. The utilization of their voices and experiences are rooted in her growing up with the lack of Black female protagonist in the books of her youth. She is grateful for landing in one of the most extraordinary Black Mecca’s for creatives, Baltimore, MD. It is the perfect place to fulfill her exploration of black life, past and present, within an incredible thriving artistic community. Her work has been recognized by the Hurston/Wright Foundation and the Maryland Writers Association, as well as published in Persimmon Tree Literary Magazine, Auburn Avenue, Rigorous Magazine, and many others.

Never Not Broken

I am mesmerized by his unflinching brokenness. He stares out of the barred windows with static brown eyes flecked with unfallen tears. His drooping head causes his long matted dreadlocks to lay upon his left shoulder. There is no furrow in his brow and his full lips sag at the corners. Jonah is an unmoored vessel undulating between the ether and the loam. My eyes trace the prominent veins running through his hands in anticipation of touching him.

When I arrived at Haven Behavioral Health Hospital, I overheard the loam is where Jonah laid after being mistakenly shot because he fit the description. He died, then came back, left the hospital with a clean bill of physical health, and landed here with a clinical diagnosis of akinetic catatonia.

I abhor maladies of the soul being categorized. It infers there is a manufactured cure capable of enabling an unburdened walk through this nebulous life-to-death cycle. Just ingest a cocktail of drugs. Listen to repetitive dispassionate words then regurgitate them or have your brain electrified, and “Voila!” Straight bull. Inside this imperfect world focused on perfection in all things and at all costs, the vital synergy between broken and unbroken states is best regenerated by the primal power of touch. This communion of souls penetrates blood and bone until light can be seen without the fog of tears. It is why I am in this enclave of fractured souls. Here I will add to my specialty unwalled collection of people.

You see, I also gather broken things. Armless dolls. Toppled bird’s nests. Flattened animal appendages. Where others see nothing of value, I see treasure. From my precious cache, I create splendiferous mosaics exemplifying the beauty of fusion. In my living room, wall striations of my work surround a large painting of the Hindu Goddess Akhiladeshvari, whose name means, never-not-broken.

Several years ago, I found her atop eviction belongings under weighted clouds right before the onset of a drenching rain. Her tenet sang to me and like droplets of water on thirsty petals she nourished and validated my ideals.

My attention turns from Jonah to Mazel when she grabs the handles of his wheelchair. Before she can push him away, I shoot out my foot to block her.

“Ayla, get out the way. You know dern well this man don’t talk. Why you keep pushing up on him?”

“Just trying to get to know him,” I respond.

“And as I keep telling you. You’re a patient, not a doctor or a savior. Anyway, go get dressed for your one-on-one with Dr. Feaster and fix your glasses.”

“Will do, Sargent.”

Mazel smiles. Her slender pink-painted lips curl upwards igniting a light blush to spread across her high yellow cheekbones. She is no nurse ratchet, but she runs a tight ship. Still, I lay my hand atop Jonah’s hand, resting in his lap, and I feel it. The alternate interior angles of our parallel lines are equal, which allows an entry point between us. A submerged ball of pain, rejection, and confusion ripples under my fingertips. I try to nudge it, as was done to me once by an old black woman with deep veined hands wizened by the many lives before her, but Mazel jerks the chair backwards.

“Come on Ayla. Move.”

I apologize, then rise enough to whisper in his ear, “It’s okay to stay in that place for now. Just know we are never not broken. You must learn to flow like water through rocks.”

Mazel clucks her tongue before pushing him out of the community room towards the hallway. She stops at the door to yell back, “Fix your glasses.”

I leave my spectacles askew, preferring to leave the straight gaze for others requiring a linear view of life.

An hour passes with the stretch of an endless mountain range in my monastic room. Finally, Mazel rushes in to hurry me to my session. My lackadaisical movements are not those of a petulant child, but rather a battle-weary soldier. I grab my sketchpad to help me endure Dr. Feaster’s inquisitive and unrelenting diatribe. It is our second meeting, so I must be ready to stifle his fruitless ambitions.

The loud tick of the clock on the wall signals me to begin my hour countdown after I sit in a smooth olive-green armchair opposite Dr. Feaster.

He clears his throat to draw my attention. This causes me to inwardly giggle since I’ve decided I’m not off the rails in thinking he looks like a villain. A thick black and gray handlebar mustache sweeps out over his thin lips. His egg-shaped bald head, beady pale blue eyes, and the grayish pallor to his skin. He reminds me of a vampire, but as far as I’m concerned he is a different kind of sucker.

“So, Ayla, how are you today?”

“Fit as a fiddle, Dr. Fester.”

“Now Ayla, you know my name is Dr. Feaster. In any case, I spoke with your foster parent, Helen. She told me some interesting and troubling things about you that you haven’t shared. I’d like you to open up and tell me about your life.”

“How did you find my surrogate mother, Dr. Freud?”

“Feaster. You were a ward of the state. Quite easy to find information about you.”

“What did she tell you that perked your interest?”

“Many things. Like your husband’s death three years ago after an accidental shooting in your home.”

“I see.”

“You also didn’t tell me your parents were killed in a car crash when you were five years old and you had no family member able to care for you.”

“Um hum.”

“Ayla, these are devastating things. Things that can break people.”

“I’ve already told you I’m broken. We all are.”

“We need to examine these events in your life.”

“Does examining matter?”

“Yes. This way we may get to the crux of why you were walking in moving traffic. Were you trying to harm yourself? Sometimes people do things to bring attention to their pain.”

“I told you I was trying to reach something I thought I saw on the road.”

“Do you remember anything about your relationship with your parents? Maybe snippets of dreams you’ve had about them or how you felt about them?”

“Ah, Freud it is. Dreams and mothers.”

Before he can continue, muddled confusion and screams fill the corridor outside of his office. After multiple beseeching cries of, “Calm down Karen. Let’s get you back to your room,” Dr. Feaster excuses himself to walk out into the chaos. I stay in my seat knowing Karen, the latest patient to enter the hospital, will fail at her much-talked-about escape plan, unlike my successful strategy to get into Haven.

In my neighborhood, the “gentrificationers” had created a scarcity of fodder for my collections. They had come to erect a new Eden for those with less melanin in their skin tones and more green in their pockets. With their advance, they halted the rhythm of city kids splashing laughter inside old-school southern greetings riding atop the bop of trap music trailing from cars. Culture and community became ghosts' memories. And then came the pandemic solidifying the apocalyptic, albeit pristine, barrenness of the once colorful and vibrant series of city blocks..

So, a month ago, I came up with a plan to walk into the street amidst moving cars to remedy my loss of collectibles. The cops were called, as I assumed they would be, and I was taken away to the nearest hospital, assessed, then brought here for further psychiatric evaluation.

A harried Dr. Feaster comes back into the room and plops into his chair disrupting my quiet reflection.

“Sorry about that Ayla. Now, where were we?”

“I assume more information from Mama Helen.”

“Ah, yes. She also told me you graduated at the top of your class in your undergraduate psychology program and later earned your doctorate in religious studies with a focus on the healing practices of indigenous people. I scanned your dissertation, entitled: Healing without the Drugstore or the Drug Dealer. Very interesting. All quite significant accomplishments by the age of thirty.”

“All true.”

“Please talk to me about your life, about you.”

“Doc, I’m good. Right as rain.”

“Are you? The police officers who brought you in took pictures of your collections and the cluttered state of your home. You seem to have a preoccupation with dead or dreadful objects. Why is that?”

“You see dead and dreadful. I see beauty and balance. After all, it is the parts of a thing working in tandem that makes it whole. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I would. Which is why I am asking you to talk about the difficult episodes in your life, so we can get to the crux of what may have developed in your psyche to skew your view of yourself and the world.”

Hmm…the crux. But does the origination matter? Damage is just damage whether it comes from your mother or father or whatever causes a soul to separate states of being. For me, I prefer enabling the necessary harmony between the yin and the yang instead of seeking the origin of a fissure and flailing it until all is sunshine and lollipops. And really how long does that last? The streets are full of walking dead, those rehabilitated and then recidivated over and over again.

“Well Ayla, it isn’t about curing. It’s about understanding until one is able to manage the manifestations of their troubled soul.”

“What’s that quote? Oh yeah, If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I seek to teach and reach through touch and it works not for a day but for all the undulations in a lifetime. So, maybe the real question you should ask yourself is whether you are really helping me and others to cope or if it is just a matter of relegating us to unsustainable functioning conformity and getting handsomely paid to do so?”

I feel the hard press of his expensive pen on the page of his leather-bound notebook. He is distressed, noted by the upward tilt of his head and his eyes rolling across the ceiling, while he sifts through his mental index cards for the right lure to reel me in. I smile, then scratch my kinky “needs moisturizing” scalp and wait for the last tick of the hour.

“Well, our time is up. We’ll pick up our discussion next week. Please think about talking to me in depth about the traumas in your life. I am eager to advocate for your reentry back into the outside world. With your knowledge of psychology, you know how important it is for someone to open up for needed help after trauma, especially multiple life trauma and that is what I believe we have here. Chickens have come home to roost, per se.”

For a scant second, I think about all the “dead chickens” in my life. In silence, I note that is the point. They aren’t coming back. Not with a magic pill nor with a rote series of words. Life is a question mark at every given moment except for the finality of death.

“No need to rush me, Doc. Plenty of time to find my diagnosis and heal me.”

He smiles as I close my sketchpad, rise, and walk towards the door with a matching grin. The hall is empty as I head to my room to wait for the ring of the dinner bell. With plenty of time to divest myself of today’s therapy session, I prance down the hallways much like a dog shaking off the drench of rain.

Late afternoon is evident with waning fall sunlight trickling through the large, barred windows. Shadows creep across the faded blue walls of the community room as patients shuffle in for another unremarkable meal. I get a surprise when I am directed to sit next to Jonah.

“I told Dr. Feaster about you pestering this poor man. He suggested sitting you next to him. I guess wishes do come true,” says Mazel with a not wicked but amused laugh.

She puts a child’s twenty-five-piece puzzle box on the table between him and I before firing her parting words, “Let’s see if you can put it together as fast as Jesus could.”

It is the end of my second week at the hospital, and I have the object of my attention next to me. His gaze is still averted, but I am overjoyed to look into his unfocused eyes. I grab a napkin and wipe a thread of drool from the corner of his mouth, then pick up a puzzle piece. I slide each piece to him, wait for a response, then lay my hand on his before drawing it back and placing it into its perfectly carved space. I do this until the jigsaw is complete. Looking at Jonah, I say, “There it’s done. They are all connected. The easy ones and the hard ones make a whole picture. Just like you will be. I know you can hear me, but I need to know you feel me?” As I wait for a sign from him the day room erupts with chaotic movement. I turn from Jonah to see Clara sailing around the room with one of her many dream catchers.

Turquoise and black feathers flutter intoxicated by the breezy flow of air. Brash ceiling lights imbue the glassy beads, intricately woven into the webbed core, with an iridescent glow. Almost every eye in the room is following the colorful trail except Jonah. He remains the quiet eye within the maelstrom.

Several moments pass as staff chase Claire with clumsy ferocity. Patient shrieks and laughter elevate the confusion. Just before she is tackled her eyes meet mine and she hard pedal stops, sits at my table, then puts the dreamcatcher on her lap. I lay my hand on hers like I had on my third day here and feel the deceleration of her pulse and the fragments of her fractured state continuing to meld. I look up and around at all the bountiful treasures waiting for my touch.

Out of the corner of my eye I see Claire pick up a puzzle piece from the table and place it back into the space I’d already laid it in. I turn to gaze at Jonah. His fixed stance remains the same, but then I notice the slight brushing of his thumb against his index finger. I smile inside the swell of an old English nursery rhyme my mother used to sing to me. It twirls around and around in my head.

Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,

And so my garden grows.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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