Inferno, Christine


Zachariah made it clear to Selma that caring for the baby did not take priority over her responsibilities as a wife, so often, Christine was neglected as Selma saw to the needs of her husband. Despite this, Christine thrived, always large for her age. Doctors who examined her thought she was several months older than she actually was and sometimes insisted on seeing her birth certificate to confirm. As she grew, she spent much time with her uncle Alvin’s family in another county whenever her father would declare he was tired of looking at her and as Christine gained awareness of her situation, she was thankful for the warm and loving environment her uncle provided, versus the cold and cruel confines of her father’s house. On numerous occasions, Alvin insinuated that he and his family would be happy to let Christine stay with them on a permanent basis, but Zachariah always said no.

“The girl’s my responsibility,” he’d say. He never called Christine by name, always calling her “the girl” or just “girl” when addressing her directly.

One person who took a lot of interest in Christine was Deacon Frederick, who was his usual warm and accepting self. In Christine’s case, he was especially so, and always had a piece of peppermint candy for her, and took a genuine delight in whatever story she would tell. Christine came to wish that Deacon Frederick was her father and that she could go live in his fine house in town, rather than the modest and unadorned household her mother maintained at Zachariah’s insistence. For his part, Deacon Frederick always felt a closeness to Christine that was different than what he felt for all the other children in the congregation. He frequently scolded Messner for not showing more affection toward his daughter.

“You got you a fine little girl there, Zachariah,” Frederick said once. “It’s just not right to treat her like you do.”

“The Lord has given me this burden to endure and I shall endure it as I see fit,” was Messner’s reply.

Whenever Frederick would raise the issue with Selma, she would get quiet and change the subject quickly.

“He’s my husband,” she’d say of Zachariah. “I must yield to his judgment.”

At age thirteen, Christine was considered awkward and pudgy, with full, rosy cheeks, very long feet and short, dark hair. Zachariah rarely spent any money on her, other than for food and what he paid for upkeep on their house. He especially didn’t want to waste funds on things she’d only outgrow in a year or so, so her clothing was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs from kindly neighbors with older kids, or tidbits Selma picked up at the local thrift shop for less than a dollar. The kids at school often teased her about her clothes, but despite this, Christine remained outwardly cheerful and friendly, often laughing along with the other kids, though sometimes when she was alone, she’d cry because of their taunting. Her best friend was Jodie Newcombe, and Christine often spent the afternoon at Jodie’s home, studying and doing their homework, since Zachariah forbade her from reading anything other than the Bible under his roof.

In school, Christine was mostly studious and polite, but in one class, English, she earned a reputation for being disruptive, prompting her teacher, Mr. Standridge, to keep her after school a lot. Mr. Standridge noticed, however, that when Christine was in detention, she never acted out, but was always polite and courteous.

“Is it okay if I read, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked the first time she showed up after school.

“You may work on your assignments, Christine,” he replied. “That’s fine.”

“No. I was hoping I can read some of them books on that shelf,” she said, pointing to the literary works he assigned to the older students.

“If you’d like,” he said.

For the next few days, Christine would report for detention, and sit, quietly reading books from the shelf. The rate at which she finished them astonished Mr. Standridge, who began to recognize a pattern.

“Christine, can I ask you a question?” he asked her one afternoon.

“Yes sir, Mr. Standridge.”

“Why are you always acting up in my class?” he says. “I’ve spoken to the other teachers and they say you’re a model student in their classes. Why not mine?”

Christine lowered her head. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Standridge. I just wanted to read some of your books and figured if you kept me after class, I could.”

“If you like to read, I can loan you the books.”

“No sir. My father don’t want me reading at the house.”

“You can’t read at home?”

“No sir. My father only lets me read the Bible at home. I have to leave my book bag at my friend Jodie’s at night. He won’t even let me bring my school books in.”

“I’ll tell you what, Christine,” Standridge said, “I’ll let you come here in the afternoon and read all you want. You can tell your parents whatever you need to as to why you stayed after school. I won’t count it against you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Standridge,” Christine said, very excited.

From then on, Christine was a regular presence in Mr. Standridge’s classroom after school. While she normally would greet him when she entered, read for a while, then say goodbye as she exited, sometimes they’d have brief conversations. He came to enjoy having her there, and admired her studiousness.

“Is that your family?” Christine asked about a photo on his desk.

“It is. My mom and dad, brother Rex, and sister Claire.”

“You still close with your sister?”

“I was. She died when we were children,” he said.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Christine said. “Was she in an accident or something?”

“No, she had a rare heart condition. Now they have a surgery that might have saved her, but they hadn’t developed it back then. Such a shame.”

“Bet you miss her.”

“I do, Christine. Very much.”

“Why ain’t you married, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked.

“Aren’t, Christine. The proper way to say that is, ‘Why aren’t you married’.”

Christine laughed. “Okay, Mr. Standridge. Why aren’t you married? I mean, you’re a good-looking guy. Lot of the older girls got crushes on you.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”

“Not every man is marriage material Christine. I’m still young, though, so, who knows?”

Inferno, The Birth of Christine 


Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy. 

When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come. 

She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home. 

In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust. 

See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy. 

Inferno 


Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.

In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.

In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.

The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.

At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.

“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”

“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s right.”

Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.

The Girl in the Well

When she grew up
she could not be in cramped places,
like her mother’s walk-in closet,
or the space between her aunt’s house
and the garage.
Sometimes, in a theater,
in that moment of darkness
before the movie flickered on,
she’d feel her throat tighten,
and sweat begin on her forehead,
and she’d think back to the time
when she didn’t know how long
the lights would be out.

Then there were times when
she went back,
felt the chill of the dirt beneath her,
heard the digging which seemed
to come from all around.
She remembered how she cried,
though her parents could not come to her.
That was when she learned
there is no Superman.

When she grew up she was popular,
top of her class and
everyone’s best friend.
She seemed to know where
the best parties were held,
and where the most people would be.
In church, hers was
the sweetest voice in the choir.
But as she listened
to the preacher, who spoke
of heaven and
the rewards that awaited all
true Christians, she would laugh,
for there was nothing he
could tell her.

She already knew how it felt
to be in the ground, then
lifted up.