Continuing On: My Adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; Inferno: Chapters 19, 20, and 21
Canto 19: Simoniacal.
We started moving fast again. Speed had no meaning. Geography only existed as a means of organizing thought and my thoughts were not that organized. In minutes we arrived at a chapel. It was made of glass. Through the windows you could see pews, an organ and an altar. A smaller building, like a single cement block, was attached to the back.
“We’re here.” she said. So I stopped the car.
I didn’t want to go inside. It was a cliche. A church could teach me nothing here, or so I thought. We made our way across the little wooden bridge that spanned a sluggish stream that must have been decorative once but ran brown and fetid here. It stank. We came to the door and were stopped there by a woman wearing heavy eye make-up.
She smiled a wide, warm smile and the tears began to flow. “How good of you to bless us with your visit.” she whined, “Please support our ministry by paying the entry donation” She held out her hand and my Guide put money in it. “Bless you.” the woman wept. We went inside.
We took two seats near the back of the church. The first few rows were full of men and women holding small cardboard boxes in their laps. The bowed their heads in prayer.
The choir filed in and took their places and then the minister — a man in a yellow suit, bounded to the pulpit and began to preach.
“It costs money to run a ministry. Oh yes, yes it does brothers and sisters. It costs money to build the house of God and money to provide homes for his servants. It is a costly business, supporting the glory of his holy name, say Amen.” The congregation responded “Amen!” “It costs the work of my life to be your leader, and that is money well spent.” He bellowed, “That is filthy money and giving it away will save your soul! Amen!” Again they responded. “Amen!”
“And if you give your money to God surely he will build you a house in heaven! Amen!” The congregation responded, “Amen” this time a little less enthusiastically.
“So what do we need from you? What shows the dedication of your heart and the sweat of your brow?” “Money!” the people responded.
Then, as if on cue, the congregation rose and opened their boxes. Inside were pieces of the true cross, manuals about finding God, tickets to retreats, crosses engraved with prayers. These were held aloft and their prices yelled out.
The chapel became a marketplace with each one outbidding the other for the bargain of salvation only they were already dead, so they must have known they hadn’t been saved. I asked the Poet, “Do they not know?” She looked at me and nodded in their direction — a rain of oil came from the ceiling sprinklers.
It drenched them in thick, black, stinking syrup. It filled up their boxes and coated their wares. Their hair and clothes were plastered to their skin. Oil flowed down over them like wax from a candle and when they were fully coated, they looked up with expressions of rapture until all at once, the oil burst into flames.
Screaming in pain and avarice they kept up their calls for buyers. “They hope they will attain the price of their salvation.” said my Guide. “Shall we?”
She seemed immune to suffering and I admit, I too was feeling less and less as we went on. Compassion can be strained like a muscle. I had hoped it would not happen to me but already I was feeling a kind of bony shield growing over my open heart.
Alive or dead, this was a choice.
Canto 20: Victims and Hucksters
There are places in human memory that will always stand for something. It doesn’t matter if we know better, if reality is better or if our experience proves different. We use these contrasts to underscore the truth of the stereotype more often than not.
Of course we came to Vegas next. How could we not? We saw it as I saw it, a city of lights, windowless rooms, long, flat roads and noise. There were no new songs sung there. The night sky never cleared for the healing morning sun.
Clear water did not flow from the faucets — whisky did. And I wore the uniform of the place in my mind’s eye. A short, tight, strapless dress and dark eyeliner. High heeled shoes and perfume.
From here I knew my story was mine alone. I could see into the distance, the road laid out before me but still had no idea what we would find there. I remembered, this place was where the canticle of pain began to ring in Dante’s ears. For this short drive, my Guide was silent and that was as it had to be.
I looked at the people who moved through the streets. Some walked blindly with their vision blocked by monitors attached to their faces like spectacles. On these screens, odds flashed. Music played in their ears through the earphones that blocked their hearing. They could neither see nor hear where their surroundings.
Others sat in the midst of piles of books, sorting through them, standing for a moment as though they suddenly knew where to go and then reconsidering and sitting down again to page through the words of their advisors and rethink their choices. They were the ones who bought what was sold here . From time to time one would fall through holes in the sidewalk. You could hear their cried for help when this happened but they did not emerge from their holes.
They wore bracelets that said “what would Jesus do?” Buttons that read “Believe!” They carried pamphlets to explain about their saviors, never the same savior twice. None of them could speak. Some looked continually to the sky. Some watched giant screens set up around a fountain. Self-help celebrities shouted instructions from the screens “change your life! see your future! make the world in your own image!” These quiet souls took dedicated notes but they stayed where they sat and we moved on.
When I looked at their faces, I could see they were terribly maimed. Over the years, the soothsayers had become cartoons of humanity and their followers — half human creatures marking time in beanbag bodies, living on desperate, distant hope of rescue calling it destiny.
It was enough for me. We drove through town and away.
Black streaks of makeup ran down my cheeks with the tears. “Stop that.” the poet said. “what did you see there that you don’t see every day This is the realm of fools. Your pity doesn’t belong here.” But it was not only pity but fear and regret.
She continued, “Crying over things that will heal you is arrogant. Do you think life measures out these lessons lightly? Is it right to repay a gift with regret for having received it? Here you are, fortunate to see any of this, and yet you weep.
You nurse your weakness like a kitten with a sore paw when you should cut it out like the cancer it is. Love, yes, by all means, feel love and show compassion, yes but this is justice made manifest for your benefit. Pull yourself together.”
“Look and see where we are now and listen to me, I have stories too.” I looked ahead, the road stretched on through the empty, dry fields. I had nothing to do but listen.
“I am not one but three spirits. Do you know why?” I shook my head. “Inside this body are three women’s souls who lived their own lives, thought their own thoughts at greater peril than you. They could not reach the heights men reached in their day but they reached anyway.
“The first of these was Artemisia. An Italian painter’s daughter. I was seized with an urge to paint. As a little girl, I would follow my father to his studio and make chalk drawings on the floor. I learned from being there and started my own great canvases. I did not care that my name could not be signed to them — it was the work that mattered. Eventually my father gave in. Remember, when I was a girl, women could not work, we could not read nor write. We stayed at home and if we were very good, were married to someone not too terrible.
But my father saw me and he knew the passion for the art that burned in him had been sharpened and passed into me. He hired a man to help me with my one weakness — perspective. He was a gifted teacher and taught me not only to be a better painter but to learn to distrust men. He took me in the studio one afternoon. Laid me on the floor and raped me there, he hit me too. People tried to call it seduction but I would not give in. We went to court and I prevailed. You see, they put me to the thumbscrews to see if truth was as precious to me as art. It was. I did not falter.
And I was sent away to be married to a man who barely knew what painting was. I bore him children but I did not stop my work. My thumbs healed, my children grew, my husband died and I returned to painting. That is my story, or one of them.”
We drove on in silence for a while, the moon rose before us and the place looked beautiful and barren. “You were strong.” I said, “I saw you once. Hanging on a wall in a national museum. You gave me strength.”
“I know” she said, “I made you cry. Damn but you’re soft. Anyway, the dead know everything, try to remember that.” We travelled on. Canto 21: Graft Gives Chase
So, telling stories of her life, my Guide and I drove into the mountains and saw beneath us, spread wide, another dark settlement.
The place was grim, the light murky. It was home to leaning shacks of corrugated tin and crumbling drywall visibly rotting from any distance. Black mould bloomed along the seams of walls, spreading like a floral pattern on tattered fabric. Rust curled and reached above us while moss and lichen mixed with the verdigris on every other substance. My vision telescoped in and out, able to see these details and the whole place all at once. It was hypnotic.
These very signs of stagnation had fascinated me in childhood, to see them magnified and presented here drew me in. I leaned forward and almost forgot I was driving.
Watch it!” she screamed and yanked the wheel beneath my hands. “You nearly drove us off the road!” I blinked at her, barely understanding what I did. Weren’t we already in the land of the dead?
“Things here are not as they are above. It is not the danger of the body you need fear here, it is the mind drawn to the past or to the contemplation of nothing — these things become real and they can kill. You were lost once, would you be lost again?”
Someone or something ran across the road. He was hunched over and ran with frightening speed considering how disfigured he seemed to be. I swerved to miss him and nearly hit another limping runner coming from the other side. He carried two huge haunches of meat, held tightly to his chest and seemed, crazily, to be trying to get in my way.
“What is this?” I asked my Guide. This was the first taste of the kind of fear I knew from my own life, trying to avoid hazards as they came at me from every angle.
“Keep going” she said grimly, “They will try to make you hit them and then they will do what they did to that person, if they can.” “What person?” I asked, “They eat them.” she answered, “That one.” “If I cannot be hurt, if my body cannot be hurt, how can that be?” She answered me, “Your soul controls your body here, we live an allegory.”
We drove across a narrow bridge but they didn’t stop pursuing. They came at us like bugs momentarily caught in the headlights before hitting the windshield on a summer night. It was horrible to see them loom and pass, worse still to watch them drop off the bridge and plummet into whatever was below — more rock than water, that much was for certain.
The demon threw the haunches of meat down onto the sidewalk of the bridge where they had a little fire. “Here you go Martha!” He roared, “make it good!” I did not believe he meant to call the other creature by her name but rather made a joke about Ms. Stewart and her ilk, at any rate, I did not look back to see.
We sped toward the end of the bridge, watching our escape narrow as word travelled through the crowd. I would not have braked for anyone, not for a crowd of them. But as we neared our escape the throng became so huge it would not matter if I chose to brake or not. The car stopped under the weight of them and we, reluctantly, got out.
My Guide said “Stay by the car and do not speak, not a word. Whatever harm you may see come to me, remember as I said — allegory.” I nodded and opened the door, half sitting inside and watching, as quietly as I could, what was about to unfold.
She walked into the hoard and they fell on her. Hands swept across her body, tore at her skin but she seemed unaffected. She drew a deep breath, squared her shoulders and called out. “You cannot take me if I will not be taken. I am free.” They drew back a little and she continued. “Send me your emissary and we will strike a bargain. Continue as you are and I will abandon you to the justice that threw you here.”
The fiends shouted out a name Malacoda! Pain personified. It may have been a joke or an attempt at punishment. They were embittered to see us moving freely in and out of their captivity. Nevertheless, he came. A hulking beast who limped and streamed with sweat. He had no hair and was covered in scars. His skin was pale but his arms were like iron.
He stood before my Guide and said “What good will talking do? Tell me, you are too mortal yet if you expect that any good could come of anything here.”
My Guide answered, “Do you think we could have come this far if nothing could be done by coming? We curse you for your evil disposition but maybe we are wrong to curse. Old teacher, while I fear you and she despises you and live, like most people, to avoid you we will walk with you here and welcome it.”
He looked down at her for a moment and then chuckled to himself — “Well, no.” he said, “thanks for being so big about it but I have things to do here. I’m sending some of my boys along with you to get you to the edge of this territory. They’re good guys, you’ll enjoy them.”
He walked away laughing but as he did, he snapped his fingers and a few shaggy soldiers shuffled to the front of the crowd and looked expectantly in our direction.
Malacoda turned and said — Grizzly, Hellken, Deaddog, Curlybeard, Cramper, Catclaw, Pigtusk take these ladies to the chasm, they can find their own way from there, and take Dragontooth with you, he kicked a heap of rags at his feet and a sleeping man, snorted and staggered to his feet rubbing his eyes, already smiling.
My Guide held out her arms in welcome and I could stay quiet no more. “What are you doing?” I said, “We can go alone. What kind of guides are these? half stupid, more than half evil — they’ll lead us to the chasm alright and into the abyss.”
“Shhhh” she said sharply, “You should be ashamed of this fear you seem to cherish. Let it go. It does not suit you and does not make me think you are anything but a fool. We take what life offers and we learn from it. Even things like this. Quiet yourself, they cannot harm either of us — we can only learn from them.”
They turned along the path and walked past us into some semblance of formation, as they did, Dragontooth looked over his shoulder and stuck out his tongue at me, I swear.