Ashes, Mylene

Mylene Messner stood on the porch of the home she shared with her husband, Zachariah, watching as he drove away in his light blue Chevy Rambler. She lingered a long while, knowing it was the last time she’d ever see him, then went inside and began clearing away the breakfast dishes and washing them. She then busied herself straightening up the house and writing some letters and cards to people who had written her recently. She kept her responses cheery and brief, so as not to betray what she had in mind for that day. After putting the letters into the mailbox, she phoned the Porter’s house to see if Selma was there, but no one answered, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. Since Alec Porter’s wife Cherry died no one was ever home during the day. Selma sometimes volunteered at their church but Mylene did not call there. She thought about writing Selma a note but decided against it.

It had been just over nine years since Mylene married Zachariah, leaving her family wondering what she had seen in a man so much older than she was. Zachariah started attending her family’s church when Mylene was in high school. While still a girl, she found him to be a curiosity and she and Selma would sometimes snicker among themselves at this odd man who always appeared wearing the same dark suit, who’d always sit in the same pew in the same place each Sunday and seemed fully devoted to his faith. His was among the loudest voices when hymns were sung, and he frequently answered the altar call when the pastor invited everyone who felt in need of prayer or forgiveness to come forward. At the time, her family believed she’d marry Jimmy Frederick, who had graduated a few years before Mylene, but who’d shown an interest in her throughout the brief time their paths crossed at school. After she graduated, they dated a while, but she could never garner much interest for the popular Frederick, who many believed had his pick of eligible women, prompting Mylene’s family to encourage her to make up her mind. When she eventually did, it wasn’t in the direction they’d anticipated.

Mylene was always a bright and enthusiastic young woman, who worked on the yearbook staff senior year and wrote poems and stories for her school newspaper. She imagined all sorts of wonderful adventures she’d like to pursue, once she graduated, maybe one day moving to Macon, Atlanta, or even New York. After school, she continued her writing with poems or inspirational paragraphs in the newsletter her church sent out, eventually becoming the editor. She went to work as a cashier at Walker Groceries and it was here she’d often see Messner, stocking up on food or other necessities.

“Afternoon, Mr. Messner,” she’d always say when she saw him. She noted that when she was on duty, he’d often choose her lane, even if there were others ahead of him or other lines open.

“Miss Tucker,” he’d reply, usually with a smile and a nod. There was always an awkwardness in how he behaved in her presence, unlike the rigid assurance with which he conducted his actions in their church. He knew the Scriptures like no one else Mylene had ever met, including Frederick, who always put an interpretive spin on the verses, and he was quick to volunteer his time for projects the church sponsored. His devotion both frightened and fascinated Mylene, since it was all he presented to the world. She had never heard him speak of family and, while he had gained the respect of others within the church, he had no apparent friends and did not socialize after services like many in the congregation would. Despite their difference in age, Mylene found herself drawn to this quiet and faithful man. She began making every effort to speak to him after services or lengthen the conversation when she’d see him at the store. She found him receptive and before long, rumors were circulating about how this odd duck had somehow captured the heart of the beautiful Mylene Tucker.

They were married in a small ceremony attended mostly by her family and other congregants. No one claimed to be there on the groom’s behalf. Frederick had been notable by his absence, having expressed his belief to Mylene that she was only spending time with Messner to make him jealous. In fact, Mylene had come to love Zachariah, his every quirk a hidden joy for her. She looked forward to raising a family with him and when she became pregnant a few months after their marriage, her joy was only outdone by the sorrow she felt when she miscarried several weeks later. This established a pattern that would repeat over and over in their marriage. Zachariah never dwelt on the losses, and always was a source of comfort for Mylene.

“It’s the Lord’s will,” he’d say. “He’ll reward us when the time is right.”

The timing was never right and always lurking just outside their marriage was Frederick, who had never given up his hope that Mylene would “come to her senses” and see him for the suitable mate she deserved. She had taken to avoiding him in church whenever she’d attend in the wake of one of her miscarriages, because even his words of comfort sounded self-serving and meant to steer her in his direction. Zachariah, for his part, knew how much Mylene wanted a child, and never gave up praying and hoping along with her. His thoughts had turned toward another alternative which he never fully articulated, but which Mylene understood very well.

“I love you, Zachariah,” she said when the idea was first intimated. “I could never betray you like that.”

“It would only be a betrayal if your heart was in it,” he replied. “The Scriptures have shown us that God’s will overrides that of man.”

“The Commandments say otherwise,” Mylene told him.

“It is through faith and not deeds that we are redeemed,” he said. “The Lord would forgive.”

“I couldn’t forgive myself,” she replied. “If it’s the Lord’s will that I never be a mother, so be it.”

Zachariah had dropped the argument, but Mylene could still see that it continued to occupy his thoughts.

Around eleven, she had a call from her oldest sister, Patsy, inviting her to come to Cordele for a visit. “Alone,” Patsy emphasized. Mylene agreed, knowing it would never happen. Patsy married and moved to Cordele just before the start of the War, when Mylene was still just a toddler, so she didn’t get to know her big sister until she was nearly in high school and she still didn’t know Patsy well. Between them, there were five sisters and two brothers. Still, Mylene enjoyed her visits there, as her brother-in-law, Dud, or her niece Clydie would take her flying in one of their planes which they used for the family business of crop dusting. Of all her siblings, Patsy was the one Mylene regretted leaving the most.

Just after noon, Mylene had a light lunch and took stock of all she had accomplished that morning. The house was cleaner than she’d ever gotten it, the dishes were all washed and put away, and all her correspondence was handled. She felt there wasn’t much left she needed to do. She phoned Janice Wolfe, who was taking over the duties of editor of the church newsletter from her. Mylene asked to be relieved of the job so she could focus more on “family concerns” and the pastor had nodded with a knowing expression. Mylene had already shown Janice the ins and outs of producing the newsletter, how to work the mimeograph machine, and the schedule of deadlines for placing items in each edition and given Janice her favorite red fountain pen for editing. She really had nothing new to share with her, but suddenly felt the need to hear another person’s voice, so she called and repeated some instructions which Janice acknowledged.

“Okay, mother hen,” Janice said. “I got it all down. You just wait ‘til you see my first issue. I’ll make you proud.”

“I’m sure you will,” Mylene said. She concluded the call and walked through the house once more, making sure there was nothing she’d left undone. Satisfied she was leaving the place in good shape. She headed into the bathroom for her final preparations.

She filled the tub, holding her hand beneath the streaming water to be sure it wasn’t too hot for her. Once it was full she went into the bedroom and undressed, assembling her clothes neatly on the bed and went back into the bathroom. She stared at herself in the mirror, wondering what she should say, if anything, to somehow explain what she was about to do. Nothing she could think to write seemed appropriate, so she settled on words from the Scriptures, picked up a bar of soap and scrawled them onto the mirror, then set the soap aside and picked up Zachariah’s straight razor. She stepped into the tub and lowered herself into the water, lying back and getting comfortable. She held her left arm out of the water and placed the razor just below her elbow along her forearm, then cut a slash deeply into her skin, along the artery, all the way to her wrist. Blood spurted from the cut and she dropped the razor, then let her arm fall into the water, which immediately turned red. Staring skyward, she repeated the words she had written, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” then fell into total darkness.

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