Chapter Two – Of Mustard Seed and Men

by | Midnight Birdcage

Chapter Two


At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.

~Maurice Maeterlinck

“Got a good one for you,” Lisa, the admissions clerk, says.

“Your timing’s impeccable,” I reply, glancing at the office clock. 11:47pm, Christmas Eve about to give way to the most sacred and celebrated of holidays, and I get to usher it in evaluating Lord knows what.

“It’s your Christmas present,” Lisa says.

“Meaning?” I ask.

“Come see for yourself,” she teases. “And hurry. The police want to leave.”

I hustle down the eerily quiet hallway and key the locked door leading out to the psych ER waiting room where two policemen have my patient in handcuffs. The cops tell me that the man’s name is Bill and he claims to be homeless.

“Found him wandering through an old warehouse that was ablaze,” the older officer says, shaking his head. “Firemen stumbling out, gasping for air and this guy waltzes out like he’s on a Sunday stroll.”

 “And not a scratch on him,” the baby-faced cop says. “Just walking around muttering something about a mustard seed, the power of the tongue, and death and life, or something like that.” He leans in and whispers. “Is this guy crazy or what?”

They remove the cuffs as I slowly approach, wondering who this man is. He doesn’t appear homeless in his khakis, a faded, light-blue, work shirt complete with two pens and a notepad neatly tucked away in his left shirt pocket, a dark-blue hooded jacket with no apparent tears or stains, and well-worn but clean Nike’s on his feet. And, a watch, black band, nothing fancy. No wedding band. No other jewelry.

“Nice to meet you Michael,” he says to me, extending his hand.

I hesitate but only for a second, the wily veteran in me quick to extend my hand and not let this character, whoever he is, take control of the situation, although I’m beginning to wonder if somebody’s playing a sick joke on me. I inadvertently left my name badge back in the office. No one had spoken my name since entering the waiting room area and the cops didn’t know it.

“We good to go?” the older officer asks.

“Sure,” I say, as I motion Bill to take a seat in the interview room while I usher the officers out. “This guy give you any reason to be concerned?” I ask as I key the wall lock to let them out.

“Not at all,” the older cop replies.

“And you saw him walking out of the warehouse?” I ask, holding the door open.

“Yeah, we heard the firemen screaming on their radios about finding this guy and needing to get him out.” He turns and looks me right in the eye. “I’ve been around a few fires, but never that hot. This was an old downtown warehouse, a crack house for the homeless most nights. What gets me… ” He glances around the empty waiting room and then leans in. “This guy ain’t homeless okay? I mean look at him.” He turns his gaze towards Bill, who sits patiently across the hall. “Maybe he knew somebody in there or something, I don’t know. But the fireman…” He turns back towards me. “They looked rough. And this guy strolls out looking like that?”

“So what are you telling me?” I ask.

“I don’t know counselor,” the cop replies with a sly laugh. “That’s your department. But if you find out what he’s made of, I’d sure like to know.”

“I know where to find you,” I say with a grin as I shut the door and head back to interview my mystery man.

“So, let’s see…” I plop down in the old chair behind the desk. “Bill, your hometown is where?”

“Heartland,” he says with a mild-mannered reply, looking up to reveal a set of pearly white teeth, the bluest of Pacific Ocean blue eyes, and a thick head of salt-n-pepper hair, with far more pepper than me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was interviewing a man preparing to board his luxury houseboat.

“The universe where the mustard seed and the tongue join forces to conquer one’s fears,”

“And Heartland is where?”

“Heartland is in the innermost depths of your soul,” he says, “where one finds harmony with the universe.”

“Which universe?” I ask, wondering if, by slim chance, we had a doctor in house this late in the evening. As a licensed counselor and mandatory pre-screening agent for the state, I am certified to sign a first set of involuntary committal papers on any patient I assess. That document holds the individual until he is evaluated by a physician, who subsequently determines if the person should be committed for an inpatient psychiatric evaluation, transferred to a lower level of care, or allowed to return home with a safety plan and a follow-up mental health appointment.

Bill leans back in his chair and smiles. “The universe where the mustard seed and the tongue join forces to conquer one’s fears,” he says with the quiet confidence of a life well-lived.

“And just what scares you?” I ask.

“After tonight…” He pauses, his blue eyes dancing with delight. “Nothing.”

“Tonight?” I ask, already filling out the top section of the involuntary committal form.

He waits on me to give him eye contact. “Tonight I walked into the furnace and nary a hair scorched. Firemen all around me dropping like flies and I walked out unscathed.”

“Am I insane?”

“But why?” I ask, as I go back to completing the involuntary form.

“I thought last week’s episode at the St. Louis Zoo was…” He waits again on me to look at him, a tinge of sadness in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I say, setting my clipboard down. “Tell me about last week.”

Bill nods. “Last week my friend, Daniel, and I climbed into the lion’s den at the St. Louis Zoo.”

“What happened?”

“Obviously nothing…” He grins. “Except the police tried to have me committed to the psych ward of St. Louis General.”

“So were you committed?”

He leans back and slowly crosses his arms. “What do you think, counselor?” He strokes his chin with his right hand. “Am I insane?”

I lean back in my chair and study this man again. His hospital face sheet says he’s sixty years old, yet he doesn’t look a day over forty. Clean shaven, muscular in a wiry way, articulate, confident yet humble… Is he insane? Pulling my leg? A reporter?

I quickly take Bill through the usual assessment questions regarding suicidal / homicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, symptoms of psychosis such as hearing voices or seeing faces or objects (auditory or visual hallucinations); brief questions regarding sleep and appetite, alcohol and drug use, treatment history, and the like… Nothing. No current symptoms. No history of. No family history of mental illness. Just a respectful and seemingly normal response to each question.

“Anything else, counselor?” he asks softly.

I glance down at my hand-written notes and involuntary committal form attached to my clipboard, wondering what to do with this man. An individual is committable to a mental health facility if he poses a serious threat of harm to himself (suicidal), a serious threat towards others (homicidal), or is psychotic and grossly out of touch with reality to the extent that his actions place him in harm’s way or incapable of caring for himself.

The first two scenarios, risk to self or others, are often clear-cut, although to what extent an individual is contemplating suicide can be a tough call, especially if family or loved ones voice a counter opinion.

It’s that third scenario — the individual’s sense of reality — that can be difficult to determine. Even individuals with histories of schizophrenia or delusional disorder aren’t necessarily committable just because they perceive reality in a different way.

I set my clipboard in my lap. “So what’s next?” I ask.

He chuckles. “I’m done. I’ve moved my mountains, removed my fears.”

“No parting of the Red Sea, or perhaps Goliath?” I ask.

“My mustard seed has been firmly planted,” he says. “I’ll reap the harvest for years to come.” He eases back in his chair. “Nope, I’m retiring. Think I’ll buy a small farm in Kansas.”


“Why not?”

“Why give up such a promising career?” I ask. “Think of the crowds. Think of the admission fee! You need a good manager?”

“Not worth it,” he replies.

“What’s not worth it?” I gesture with my hands.

“Not worth the headache of trying to explain the concept of evidence of things not seen.” He sighs. “People want their mustard seed and the power of the tongue handed to them on a silver platter. They just don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” I ask.

He leans forward, drawing me in. “You have to find your mustard seed.”

“Ah, yes,” I muse, “heartland.”

He nods and smiles. “And once you’re there, you must be willing to plant your seed. Cultivate it. Keep the weeds out.”

I let his words settle a minute, genuinely intrigued with this man. Is he for real? Under the influence of some potent drug? Delusional? Who am I to say? He hasn’t committed a crime. He’s obviously making claims that have placed him in grave danger, including tonight. Regardless of what he tells me, tonight’s incident is confirmed from the police point of view. And yet, perhaps he did know someone in that warehouse. A son on drugs, a friend. A Good Samaritan. Or something else…

I look up from my clipboard. “Bill, let me ask you one more question?”

“Feel free.”

 “Why were you so compelled to test your faith in such life threatening ways?”

“You’ll have to ask my friend, Daniel.”


“He’s sitting right here,” he says, looks to his right, and nods. “Next to Shadrach, Meshach, and what’s his name. Ask ‘em.”

I stare at him, and then look away, genuinely miffed.

“Hey counselor…”

I look up. He’s got a big grin on his face. A perfectly sane, “gotcha” kind of grin.

“Just kidding,” he says.

“So why the fire and lion’s den act?” I ask in vain. Our on-call psychiatrist may react on the side of safety and order that the patient be admitted, given that he hasn’t seen him and only has my brief phone synopsis to go on. If not admitted and he does something stupid a few days later and dies or gets maimed, I’m in trouble for not committing him. “Why risk your life?” I say to him.

“Why not?” he replies. “Not like it hadn’t been done before, right?”

I glance at my watch. It’s Christmas. Not another psychiatric soul stirring.

“Merry Christmas,” he says to me with a nod and a warm smile.

I look up at him and blink, my mind or my heart playing with my sense of reality. I try not to stare, but amid this stale, lifeless, broom-closet-sized, assessment office, there’s an aura about this man. Or so it appears…

“If you truly believe in the power of the tongue,” he says with great conviction, “and have faith as a grain of mustard seed to move mountains… Why not?”

“Yeah…” I hold his gaze, and then smile. “Why not?”

“So what’s it going to be, counselor? Am I going upstairs, or going to Kansas?”

Got a postcard six weeks later from some tiny town in Kansas. “Dorothy and the tin man say hello. Love my farm, including a new patch of mustard seed. Have you planted yours? Take care… Bill.”

More Stories from the Midnight Birdcage

Chapter 5 Ole Charley

Without Pam (teacher’s aide) standing behind them to encourage, redirect, prompt and whatnot, the kids sensed the kill. Even though they were in a state psychiatric hospital and acutely autistic, they were keenly aware of the fact that I could not possibly handle all four of them by myself. So, why not pay me back for all those times…

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The Preface

And the Greatest of These

Chapter One