A short story: The night I read “Inferno” by Dante

botticelli-dante

Yesterday, late at night, I stumbled upon a tale of darkness and despair. It was just over 1  o clock, the moon was up, the stars shone bright and I was utterly and completely mesmerized by the excruciating horror of Dante’s words. Stiff as a stick, I lay there in my bed, turning the pages over. My skin pale as a ghost’s. My body, not being able to move a muscle, blood was flowing through my veins and with eyes wide open, I stared into the darkness as the window-curtains slowly but surely began … to move. Fright shook me at that moment. A black curtain had become a sordid serpent, lurking its way from across the room and into my bed. Was I awake or was I – like Dante – also finding myself in the midst of a vivid nightmare? Had I gone mad? No. I squinted my eyes and began to understand what was happening. It was Dante’s effect on me – from the very beginning of his opening lines; Describing a hell on earth, his galvanizing words had electrified my brain and lured me into a world of hallucinations. I looked over at the snake again. It was closer now, and it moved towards me at a rapid speed until its eyes, only about four centimeters away from my face, stared directly into my soul. A tremendous amount of fear and excitement lurked beneath the surface of my mind, but I did not stop. I could not stop. I had to continue reading. If I looked up from the book, the serpent would move closer. If I looked down on my book, it would stay at its original spot. The situation was clear: I was fighting a battle between my hallucinatory unconsciousness and the distraction of Dante’s story. So the only thing I could possibly do was to continue reading without stop. And that was when it happened; That was when I knew I had gone mad for good. Yes, reader. You heard me right: I was in this moment being dragged into the book. Against my will, Dante himself had fought through the pages with his forceful arm, pushed against my chest, clutched his hand on my nightgown and hauled me into a dark hole that would lead us both into the woods of a spiritual realm of suffering. On hard ground, we landed, in the middle of a surreal landscape that consisted of an inland sea, sepia-colored bushes and heaps of dirt, sheltered by the tallest trees; Everything smeared in blood. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected myself up from the ground and stared fearfully into the eyes of Dante Alighieri. Unable to utter a single word, I studied his tall, dark figure, his long, downward nose, and his surprisingly foul gaze. “Do you feel that smell?” he then asked in the deepest and cruelest of voices. What smell, I wondered. But then I knew. And .. I must tell you, it was by far the least pleasant surprise I had ever encountered throughout my twenty years on earth; It was the smell of feces. With a disgust so unbearable, as much for the eyes as for the nostrils, I turned my eye gaze down on my body as I came to realize that it was all covered in human excrement. The stench of it – so insufferable, that no word in any vocabulary could ever seize to compare with such an odor. It was if I allow myself to say it, an experience that could make you gag forever. “That is the body-waste of all the sinners in the second circle of Hell,” Dante spoke. “Those wretched creatures believe they can rid themselves of their wrongdoings if only they release their internal waste matter,” he continued and gave a quick grin. “What they do not know is that the Lord sees their sins as far too critical, ever to be reconciled. In the end … they’ll be drowning in their own excrement.” He pointed to a large bowl far out into the forest where human screams and cries could be heard from a mile’s distance. “It is not “fire” they are drowning in,” Dante said and laughed, as he grabbed my wrist and guided me into the next circle of Hell.”

The next landscape was that of a shore; A gigantic sea had caught our full attention, so dark and so massive that human eyes could not reach to see the end of it. In between the waves, one was able to spot a sinner or two, fighting the sharks that would bite off one limb every time they screamed or hollered a cry for help. This stage of brutality made the whole sea go red with human blood. Over the water, the skies were engaging in a frightful storm. Buckets of rain mixed with chunks of hail pattered dismally on the concrete roads, followed by a lightning-strike every second minute or so. In front was a wooden dock, which would lead the path to a tall, white lighthouse. “Why is it white?” I asked, all baffled. “When the rest of Hell is painted dark …”. Danté answered: “The lighthouse is where all the angels come and visit from heaven. They need a break every now and then in order to grasp the contrast of their situation. You see, they cannot be fully happy in heaven with all the splendor and luxury if they do not get to see a little bit of suffering as well. It eases their minds, as they are reminded of how lucky they are for having been good in life on earth. When they are finished, they fly back home.” Dante said as he then gave me signs to follow his lead onto the wooden dock. “But Dante, where do you belong?” I asked as we had reached the front entrance of the lighthouse. He then took a long look on me – a look I will seize to remember for as long as I live – followed by the most unforgettable words: “After my death in 1321, God sent me here”. Again – words cannot describe what horror swam through my body at that moment. Dante was sent to hell. My ears could not believe the sort of information they had received, so I continued to interrogate him in a desperate sort of manner: “Why would they do such a thing? You were Dante Alighieri! You were one of the big great authors! I live in the 21st millennia and people still continue to praise you and read your work!” Dante looked at me again – and I swear on my mother’s death when I say that no moral reason could support the monstrosity in his current countenance when he uttered: “You just told yourself the reason as to why they sent me here.” At this moment I swear I heard my own heart hammer so rapidly, so much that I could almost feel the palpitation of every single artery inside my body. “What do you mean Dante? They sent you here because you were a genius?” 

“Geniuses …” Dante said “Or as I call them, talented men, will forever bear the weary load of envy and disgust, led on by the mediocracy. The inadequate population always wins in the end. They always have and they always will.” He then turned his back on me as he let his eyes wander into the night sky while uttering the words under his breath: “If you must know … the real reason why they sent me here, is because of the book you’re reading right now. It never should have been published in the first place.” Dante traversed the path around the lighthouse back and forth as he spoke, as if without any clear conception of where he would lead me to next. I, of course, followed his every lead with great anticipation. “Hold on!” I hollered. “So … was it wrong of you to describe Heaven and Hell because … because it was true?” I first dared not say the last words but curiosity killed me and I had already traveled this far … “You need to understand this child,” he said. “Life is not a playground filled with unicorns and sugarcanes. It is cruel. It is dismal. And every good deed you do, no matter how honest, no matter how true, it is inevitable that you’ll have to pay your service in the end. This is mine. I told the people a version of my truth, captured through my imagination. What I failed to realize then, was that the truth I called my own, was a universal one. It was the truth of God. And even if millions of people during the 12th-century already pursued a belief surrounding heaven and hell, mine was told so vividly, so precisely – that I could not escape being punished for it.” Dante said and pointed his finger to his head. “See? Having a brain is that discouraging. I am telling you this now because I know you are a writer and a seeker of the truth. I know you wish to unlock the greatest mysteries of the world. So I am preaching to you now and only now you’ll hear it from me – don’t.” He then pointed to a large, blackened crucifix, standing in the middle of the sea before us. It was the only cross that received the lightning-strikes coming from the sky in a consistent manner, yet, somehow, it did not surrender. “That is Nicolaus Copernicus,” Dante said. “Because of his baffling intelligence about the placements of the sun and the earth in the universe, God has turned him into a cross. Now he is being punished every minute by electrocutions of the lightning strikes. Yet, he never dies. As a cause of his good deeds on earth, God wanted him to have an eternal experience of a chronical state of pain”. Then Dante pointed towards a mountain, swimming in the water on the other side of the sea. There was a naked man climbing it, step by step, his blue skin stained with blood and blemish scars. With his meager arms, he pushed a rock the size of an English cottage with all his remaining strength, only to see the rock roll down again by the time he was two feet away from the top. “That is Socrates,” he told me. “Not only was the brilliant man condemned to death by false charges, but he also has to do the impossible task of pushing a rock up a mountain, again and again, for eternity.” 

“But what is it all good for?!” I cried as I watched all the horror and the wretchedness going on repeat around me.

“God has human characteristics too. Didn’t you know?” 

“But Dante! How can this be human?!” 

“My dear child,” Dante said and patted me on the head. “Envy is a human thing. It comes in all shapes and sizes. God punishes the good because they often exceed himself. Their wit outsmarts him, their humbleness often makes him look like a fool. No one can exceed the excellence of our Lord. If they do, they are punished.”

“But I thought the devil punished?!” I cried again. 

“Oh no. You have been mistaken. See, God rules over Hell, while Lucifer rules over Heaven. It is the very essence of what we call balance.” 

“What does the devil do?”

“The devil gives praise and grandeur to the ones who have obtained nothing in their lives. The people you see walking on the streets, the gentlemen who work, the wives who occupy their days with mundane things, the townsmen who never feel the urge to express creativity, feed their virtue with books and knowledge or offer service to their community – they are the ones who get to live carefree lives in heaven.” 

With this, I trembled down on the ground before him: I could not endure looking at, or far less to allude to, the events of the preceding night. “Oh, mother Jesus!” I howled, my eyes filled with tears. “Why does it have to be so unfair!?! Why can’t I help them?!” 

Dante laughed like never before. The sound of it, evil. His eyes, glimmering with a peculiar form of self-possessed wickedness. “You … you think life is fair?” he laughed again, this time, with even greater delight. “Oh … you have much to learn my dear. Now. I have bestowed you my presence, my current situation in hell and my ultimate guidance to a carefree afterlife. I will, therefore, leave you, as I have finished my duty. An angel who goes by the name “Ignoria” will soon come out of the lighthouse and escort you home. Now remain safe, and remember my words. Farewell.” And in the blink of an eye, he vanished, followed by a dark, musty smoke that disappeared as quickly as it’s arrival. The angel came out from one of the windows of the lighthouse – a beauty she was: Her gown was made of silk that carried shades of light sepia and cream-color, her hair, golden, her eyes, miraculously blue and a face so perfectly symmetrical. On the back of her neck, there were wings. “Come with me,” she whispered gently in my ear and touched my shoulder with her ivory-skin. Then she carried me, almost weightless I was, all the way up towards the moon and the sun. On my way there I went through the skies of Hell: Tornado storms, lightning strikes, gloomy clouds, and a specific kind of coolness that bites you in the neck. Then I entered the skies of heaven: pink-colored clouds made out of sugar, people so beautiful – it would be impossible to depict them – were dancing to the sound of rhythmic church-quire that came from above. Angels kissing, falling in love, reading poetry over candlelight, cherry-wine, and goat cheese, all served on silver platters. Then after a while, we reached the sky of the earth, and soon enough, I was dropped – almost out of nowhere – back to where I belonged: In my bed with the book in my hands. 


 

Aftur S. Nerdrum 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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