Inferno, Cantos I–III
In the middle of my life, I lost myself in a dark wood.
I can’t say how I got there: I was on the path, and then I wasn’t. I can hardly even describe the wood. It was dark and dense, and I was afraid.
I wandered all night, first one way, then another, then back again. Every turn led me deeper into the wood. When I stopped to rest, I heard a distant howl, and I set off, almost running. The thick branches shut out the moonlight, and I tripped on roots and skinned my wrists on the stony ground.
Finally, I came to a hill. Over its shoulders, I saw the orange glow of the sunrise. My heart slowed, and I breathed deeply. I had survived the night.
The hill was sandy and steep, and I went slowly, planting one foot, then the other. I reached a pass, but as I prepared to climb, something sprang in front of me—a wolf.
The sun had risen now, but the stars were still out, and the air was cool. I took this as a good sign. Surely I wouldn’t be attacked after coming so far, on such a nice morning.
I waited, very still, and then tried, slowly, to edge around the wolf. As I came closer, I saw its scraggly fur and the hunger in its eyes, and I knew that I would never climb the pass.
The wolf nipped at me, and I fell, tumbling through the sand and the dirt, back to the bottom of the hill.
When I rose, I saw a figure, hazy, still, and silent. “Help me!” I shouted. “Whoever you are, help!”
“You may know me,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “I was born in the time of Caesar and lived in Rome under Augustus, in the age of the pagan gods. I was a poet, and I wrote of Aeneas, who fled Troy as its topless towers burned. But who are you?” he asked. “And why are you down here?”
“You’re him! You’re—you!” I babbled. “I’m a poet too, you know. I had a chapbook out, a few years ago, called The New Life. It got some good reviews, actually. But it’s nothing compared to you. You’re Virgil!
“You have to help me,” I continued. “The path above is blocked, and I can’t find my way home.”
“There is another path,” he said. “A longer road—a road of hopeless moans, and beyond it purging fire. I can be your guide—for part of the way, at least.”
“Even hopeless moans are better than this!” I said. “Enough with wandering and wolves! Show me the longer road.”
He led; I followed.
We took our way, and as the sun set, I started to think about those hopeless moans. “Maybe,” I said to my guide, “before we continue. . . Well, you wrote about Aeneas. He took a longer road too. I mean, he founded the Roman Empire! But he was the son of the goddess. I’m no Aeneas. I’m not a hero—I’m a poet!”
I had half-decided to go back to the pass and try my luck with the wolf.
Virgil sighed. “You’re afraid,” he said. “That’s to be expected, I suppose. Let me tell you, then, why I’m here.”
A woman, he explained, had come to him in great distress; the tears in her eyes sparkled like stars. It was the one I loved, the subject of my poems—Beatrice! From heaven, she had seen me lost in the wood, and she rushed to Virgil and asked him to use the power of his words to guide me back to the right path.
“I agreed, of course,” said Virgil. “Who could refuse her? Besides, she told me that others were moved by your trouble—St. Lucy, and even the Queen of Heaven. Three great ladies are weeping for you, and your beloved descended from heaven and got a great Roman poet out of limbo to escort you—what do you think? Is that enough? Or should I take you back to the hill?”
“Beatrice! And you, Virgil! You came here, for me!” I thanked him over and over and promised to be brave. My heart surged: even when I had been lost, I had not been alone. She had seen me. I would go anywhere, I decided, down any path, to wipe those sparkling tears from her eyes.
We went on, and the road grew darker and narrower.
City of Pain
Built by God, with love
These words were engraved on a massive gate.
“I don’t understand,” I said to my guide.
“This is the place I told you about. Here, you must see the ones who live in pain, those who have lost whatever in them was good. Leave your doubt and your fear behind—this is the longer road.” He took my hand and nodded, and we passed together through the gate.
First, there were the screams—the howls of rage, the cries for help, the shrieks of pain, short and long, high and low, in every pitch and every language. The sounds whirled together, louder and louder, into a huge broken chord. I clenched my jaw, and my eyes watered.
“What is this?” I shouted. “Who are they?”
“These are the moderates,” said my guide. “The ‘sensible’ ones. In life, they believed in nothing, and they were nothing—neither good nor bad. Now, neither heaven nor hell wants them. So they remain here, at the edge.”
As we passed, I squinted through the dark and saw a gray flag on a pole, speeding in one direction, then another, stopping and starting. Behind it ran a mass of people. I recognized some of them—here, a minor politician and his consultants; there, a writer who called for “commonsense solutions”—and I understood: these were the bland, the faithless, the cynical, the centrists. They were naked now, and as they chased the flag, they were chased in turn by gnats and wasps. Bites swelled on their faces, and pus mixed with their tears.
I looked away.
Ahead of us was a river, its shore crowded with people. They were naked too, thousands and thousands of them, squirming and jostling with each other, fighting to be closest to the water. “And who are they,” I asked, “and where are they going?”
“You’ll see when we’re closer,” said my guide, and we walked on in silence, down to the river.
When we reached the shore, I saw a ferry bobbing in the water. An old man stood at its helm, leaning on a long oar. “Give up hope now!” he shouted at the crowd on the shore. “Take one last look—you’ll never see the sky again. It’s fire and ice from now on!”
He noticed me. “You! Yes, you! The living one. Get out of here! Dead only.”
I wanted to turn, but Virgil held me in place.
“I’m serious,” said the ferryman. “It’s against the rules. You still have a real body—too heavy for the boat. We’ll sink.”
“Come on, Charon,” said my guide. “You know you’ll take him. There’s no choice: it’s the will of the one who wills.”
The ferryman glared at us, but said nothing.
The crowd, meanwhile, was restless. “Hurry up!” shouted one man. “We don’t have all fucking day!” A woman shoved him from behind: “I was here first! You can’t just push your way to the front.” The man elbowed her in the chest; as they scuffled, others pushed ahead and took their place.
The ferryman rowed to the shore, and the crowd clambered onto the boat. A few hesitated as they approached; Charon pushed them forward with his oar and beat any who tried to run.
Bulging with souls, the ferry crossed the black water, and before it had reached the other side, a new crowd had gathered next to us on the shore, just as impatient as the last.
I could not believe that there were so many dead.
“Every damned soul, from every country on earth, passes through here,” said Virgil. “On the other side lie their punishments.”
“But why are they so eager? Shouldn’t they fear it?”
“They do. But it drives them nonetheless. Their fear is also their desire. They rush ahead, hoping that their pain will turn to pleasure, and are never satisfied: even as it burns them, they long for the fire.”
From the crowd, more shouting:
“Come on, move up—there’s room!”
“How is there only one ferry running right now? Ridiculous! Who’s in charge here?”
“Let’s go already! Some of us have places to be!”
What I had felt that morning in the pass was nothing—this was terror. My sweat turned cold; my vision blurred. I took one step back and collapsed onto the muddy shore.