|Skinwalker (standard:travel stories, 5640 words) [1/5] show all parts|
|Author: Eutychus||Updated: Mar 28 2018||Views/Reads: 938/697||Part vote: 0.00 (0 votes)|
|A retelling of Dante's Inferno set in present day.|
Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story pipe but also all the gravel that fell into the empty space I created each time I removed a shovelful of gravel, which felt like emptying the ditch five times before I could do the work that needed to be done. I suppose I mention this to emphasize that I have successfully dealt with frustrating situations in the past. I slid down the side of the gully and was followed by about half the soil I displaced on the ride down. And again the valley wall looked like a gentle rise from the center of the base of the ravine up to an elevation just below the road. I turned and looked in the direction opposite the road, out the open end of the ravine. The rise was as gradual as it appeared on either side, but I harbored understandable doubts. A few miles distant and higher up on the side of a low mountain were the lights of a small town. Though there were no details recognizable from this distance, there were enough lights to indicate a respectable population and I began thinking in that direction. As I began making plans I heard a low rumble in the throat of an animal that under different circumstances might have struck me as a baritone purr. I became as motionless as I could in an attempt to find the source of the sound. It sounded like it was on the side of the ravine opposite where I thought I had seen a leopard. As I was preparing to convince myself I was relatively safe, I sensed movement some ten feet behind me. I felt a rush of adrenaline and my mouth dried out, both signs that my fight/flight reflex had engaged. I turned slowly and was surprised to see a small bald man just standing there looking at the ground. There may have been patches of vitiglio on his head or maybe the appearance of depigmentation was merely a reflection of moonlight. “Can't say I'm not relieved to see you. I was half expecting to see an ill-tempered animal.” “Not to worry. That sound is just the lion.” Odd reply. I would have thought an uncaged lion in close proximity should rate a more enthusiastic response. I shook off the strangeness of the circumstances and explained to this character what had happened and why I needed to get back up to the road. “I trust you know that you cannot get back to the place from which you began.” “Yes, and that is the darnedest thing. It's like trying to walk up a reflection in a funhouse mirror.” “Have you ever heard of a gentleman named Albert Einstein?” “Yes. Theory of general and special relativity, loaned his name to a rare earth element in the early 1950s, posters of him riding a bicycle have been popular with college physics students since the 1970s.” “Right. It's the relativity thing. Under normal conditions a person's perception of the world is relative to their speed within the world. But the physics of this place do not conform to the physical laws you are familiar with because unlike the rest of the universe, this place is not in motion.” “Of course it's not,” I said offhandedly, desperately trying to remember the basics of general relativity. “I don't think you understand me. As the earth rotates, you move with it. You cover twenty-six thousand miles every twenty-four hours if you live at the equator. That's a little more than a thousand miles an hour. The earth moves around the sun at a speed of eighteen miles per second. The sun moves relative to the stars in the local group, which would include Proxima Centauri, Barnard's Star and Wolf 359. And just as the earth rotates on its axis, so too does the Milky Way galaxy rotate, our solar system rotating with it. If you have lived a lifetime in motion a dozen directions at once, your perspective becomes quite confused when you have to observe the universe from a state of absolute motionlessness. But that's just a theory, and not mine.” “And this theory would apply to any attempt to reach the town on that hill over there?” I asked as I continued to evaluate this diminutive person. He shook his head sadly and said, “Yes, that would be true. And besides, between that city and here a great is gulf fixed, so that they cannot pass from there to here; neither can we pass to there.” “City?" "Your perception of distance, and therefore the size of the things you are observing, is being thrown off by the fact that we are motionless as well. I have heard rumors just one wall of that city is fourteen hundred miles long." Something about what he said sounded hauntingly familiar but it eluded me amid other concerns. “Sir, do you have a name?” “Call me Moe. That has served me well for quite a while now. It is obvious that your proper place is that city, so the fact that you are here is interesting. I've heard tell of this sort of thing. What do you remember about how you arrived in this place?” Moe asked as he looked with curiosity into the night sky in the direction from which I had come down the slope. “The more I concentrate the less clear the memory becomes. I remember seeing a large cat and then things get fuzzy. And I'm Jerry Trumbauer.” “Pleased to meet you Jerry. Might it have been a tendua...sorry, leopard?” “It didn't make any sense for Ohio, but yes, I think it was.” “All right. Then this follows a familiar pattern. Are you acquainted with any fourteenth century Italian poetry?” As I pondered where that non sequitur had come from I tried to analyze Moe's accent. There was an underlying British feel to it but the softness indicated that the accent had been acquired, not engrained from childhood. It was the British accent of someone who had been educated by the empire, not born into it. “The only poetry I know of from the fourteenth century is something we had to read my junior year in high school. Inferno, part one of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.” “Good. Then this will not be as difficult as it might have been. Let me first assure you that you have nothing to fear... to a point. This is one of many places on the planet that serve as staging areas of a sort for souls bound for an eternity in hell. Since there is evidence you are both alive and appear to belong to a different kingdom, there is another reason for you being here, and I am curious.” “What do you mean, 'evidence' that I'm alive?" He examined the ground for a moment, stepped up on a fallen tree trunk and walked the length of it. Upon reaching the end he continued to walk, stepping lightly across large ferns without so much as causing them to bend. He stopped where I had trudged through the area my first time down that part of the ravine, looked at my path of crushed plants, and then looked at me. "Obviously you possess both substance and mass. I have substance but no mass," Moe said, stepping down from the foliage. I moved toward him, reached out with an index finger, poked him in the shoulder and was surprised by the chill that resulted. He smiled and seemed to approve of my tactics. "No, I am not a ghost, though I am in most ways a mere shadow of the man I once was." As he spoke, somewhere between the ravine and the inaccessible city a dog howled. As the long, lonesome sound faded away and began again a memory awakened. Dante had encountered a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf prior to meeting Virgil. Somewhere in the mix had been the promise of a greyhound as well, but I had never managed to get the significance of that one. "Presuming I accept what is happening here, what is the explanation? I thought that Dante had written his poem from the perspective of one who had seen a vision of hell, not as one who had actually traveled there." Moe shook his head and shrugged slightly. "I have heard enough talk about Dante's journey to accept for myself that it really happened just as it was written. Whether or not he traveled the same road that lies before you I cannot say and the purpose for your time here may be different than his. Just out of curiosity, is there a woman?" "Excuse me?" "Is there a feminine influence in your life? In Dante's case, Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine banker, was that abiding influence." "Beatrice asked Virgil to do her a favor in leading Dante through hell, right?" "Yes. I must presume that there is a woman who might say the occasional prayer on your behalf, because I do not have the freedom to come here of my own accord. Every time something like this happens, there tends to be a female involved on some level." As I held up my left hand to display my wedding ring a question came to mind. "So what do you have in common with Virgil that qualifies you as a guide?" "It might be helpful to discuss Dante's journey in order to understand your own. In an allegorical sense Dante was on the Journey of Life. We are all going somewhere whether or not we know or acknowledge it. But he somehow veered off the path proper and found himself in a dark wood. Do you by chance recall how he got there?" "Yes, but only because I took Dante for a bit of a fool when I first read Inferno. I think his reaction to where he was went something like 'How I came to this dark wood I cannot tell'. How can you not know how you got to where you are?" "Do you recall what the dark wood was a metaphor for?" "Error, sin?" "Yes, the dark wood is sin, and any soul firmly entrenched in sinful error would have trouble responding to God's grace when He extends it our way. In your own experience, when you realized that sin was a large component of whatever unfortunate circumstance you found yourself in, weren't you a little surprised to discover that you had arrived at the place you had?" "I suppose so," I said after very little thought. "Then perhaps you can understand Dante's position after all. While we don't always understand how we got so lost, we might, by grace, realize somewhere along the line our need for salvation. Or not, in my case." "Then you are a damned soul?" "Yes, I spent some of my life in this wood doing much the same thing you were doing when I arrived. How would you describe this thicket?" I considered the difficulty with which I had passed through the trees back and forth to either side of the ravine and took a few seconds to think about several scratches from tree branches that stung much more than they had any right to. "Cruel, dense..." I said and as I turned to look at Moe my eyelid blinked shut to protect my eye from a branch that I knew hadn't been there a moment ago. "...and treacherous. A fair description of sin." "So true. And just as Dante had no sense of how he had come upon the wood, perhaps through willful ignorance of his own sinful state, we are tempted to ignore the wood, our sin, as we journey the road we each must travel. But should we happen to see our sin along the journey of life, we all instinctively desire to climb out of where we are, just as Dante attempted to climb the adjacent mountain to get out of the wood. And too often we are prevented from doing so by self-indulgence, pride, and greed. When these sins aren't kept in check they grow into obstacles that block our way." "Ah yes, the symbolism of the beasts. The leopard symbolized self-indulgence, the lion pride and the she-wolf greed, each representing specific types of sins that stand between us and God." "Exactly. And from my own experience I know that I could never combat any of these sins with my own resources. This is probably why on excursions such as yours a guide is needed. Without some insight into the particular sins you will encounter, the lessons taught may not be learned. Virgil is a pre-Christian poet who on Dante's journey personified Reason. Reason, you see, can lead people in the direction of God but not all the way. Reason is inadequate to compel us to faith, but it is nevertheless necessary. At some point in the process Reason steps aside so that Grace may work. And even after Grace has done its work of salvation and someone like yourself gets off track, Reason can lead you to the point where Grace can again be responded to." "As Virgil's counterpart, you would be a more recent personification of Reason?" "I won't make any such claims for myself, but I did attend University intending to become a lawyer, which requires the ability to use that particular faculty well." "Lawyer? That should qualify you for a number of different circles, shouldn't it?" "If that was a sincere question, yes it could. If it was an attempt at humor, not funny. Are you ready to begin?" "Begin what?" Though I had been willing to discuss seven hundred year old poetry and was a bit confused by Moe's ability to step lightly across the undergrowth, I was not yet ready to accept this situation as reality. "The journey that has been appointed to you. This is not a time to doubt your senses. In fact they should serve you better than ever. The sights, sounds, smells and sensations in hell, though not deliberately amplified, are more palpable. Besides, you are already on the path," he said, gesturing toward the ground. I looked down, scuffed at the floor of the wood with my foot and discovered that the thin layer of undergrowth was spreading out from plants growing in the spaces between ancient looking cobblestones. "Appointed to me? You make this sound like something of great importance. I'm not deserving of this kind of attention. You should be talking to someone who can better appreciate the spiritual import of such a journey." "If someone else would have been the right person for this journey, then you would not be here. And as I said, you have the appearance of someone who belongs to a different kingdom. You, unlike most all those who find their way here, really have nothing to fear. Not that fear is an altogether bad thing. Fear has its uses, but cowardice has none. It will give you pause to be cautious, to take a moment to weigh your options, but it can also paralyze you into inaction. As long as fear motivates you to keep going, it will be useful to you. Why would you choose to wait? Come on down here," Moe said and moved off the cobblestone path up one of the deceptively gentle slopes leading out of the ravine. "You must know that this is not a way out," I said as the slope began to require that I lean forward to maintain my balance. "Correct. It is the way in," Moe said, stepped to the side and revealed an opening in the face of the sheer cliff that the moderate slope had become. Little more than a three foot square, there were neither posts nor lintel, which surprised me slightly. It was just a hole cut into the rock. And directly above the opening, carved in an elegant Gothic script, I read- I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE. I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE. I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW. SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT. I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE, PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT. ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND. ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. "You know, those lines from Inferno didn't seem nearly so ominous in the eleventh grade," I said almost in a whisper. There was an air of solemnity about standing before the entrance to hell that seemed to call for quiet. Maybe I didn't want to disturb whatever might be just inside the opening. "I thought Dante said that bit of verse was written on the lintel of the opening and not just in the rock above the opening." "Dante's journey also began near the Jerusalem entrance, and recall that I said this is one of many such entry points. I doubt that they are all identical, though the verse is obviously a feature they all share. Dante also described the door as tall and wide, yet this one must be crawled through. But there is a meaning even to that, I think." "So Post-Modernism has no place in hell?" "What?" "A worldview that rejects meaning and assigns significance to things based upon individual experience. What is true for you doesn't necessarily need to be true for me, even if we are discussing something like the wetness of water. So if you say that a doorway carries intrinsic meaning..." "I see." "Then what meaning do you find in the doorway to hell?" "Meaning and symbolism are highly subjective things so my opinion may be just that, an opinion. But consider what Someone once said about the doorway in Matthew chapter 13. 'Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.' Perhaps He was speaking of the local entry, the same one Dante used, the one nearest Jerusalem. That gate is wide, and tall if Dante is to be trusted. It seems designed for ease of access, built on the path of least resistance. This one, on the other hand, requires some effort to pass through. I think the implication is that one must determine to enter. This threshold cannot be crossed by accident, meaning that those who enter by it do not do so unintentionally." "Then everyone who enters hell in a sense chooses to do so?" "I believe that case can be made, yes." "If those who enter by this gate are many, where are they all? I mean, surely people who are bound for hell have died since our conversation began." "Are you and your wife parents?" "Yes we are." "Can you fully comprehend the experience of being pregnant?" "Of course not." "Then as one who is alive, don't be surprised that you cannot completely grasp that which is happening all around you. But cross the threshold and you will see everything that is going on in this place." Certain that I belonged, as Moe had already stated, to another kingdom, I made my choice based partly on the trustworthiness of my Savior and partly on my desire to know if this was real. "So just crawl through?" Moe nodded so I squatted down by the opening and placed hands on the threshold. The doorway was three foot square about three feet deep into the cliff face before it widened into a massive chamber within the mountainside. Though there were no visible light sources, I could see somewhat better than I had out in the almost full moonlight. The ceiling of the chamber reminded me of the roll cloud portion of an approaching thunderstorm. There was a busy-ness in the "sky" above me, but no details per se. I couldn't say if the chamber was fifteen feet or a half-mile high. As I searched for reference points to establish some kind of scale the aroma hit me. The individual odors might have been tolerable but the combination was truly oppressive. Sulfur, the metallic scent of blood, unidentifiable matter in varying stages of decay, and the obvious absence of anything resembling a sewer system managed to wash over the senses not as a single aroma but in waves such that I wasn't able to get used to an individual scent to the point of being able to ignore it before being overwhelmed by a different yet equally fetid odor. There were no Underwood Deviled Ham demons with horns, pointed tails, and pitchforks. Just a stillness that was accentuated by a background noise whose cadence rose and fell at regular intervals. After a moment a higher pitched drone became clear that slowly rose in timbre and then dropped off just as slowly, like a long, drawn out Doppler shift. "That's new," Moe said and slapped at something on his neck. When I asked 'what?' he pointed up. At the leading end of an enormous banner was the source of the droning sound which I could now confirm (I had been intentionally ignoring the possibility) was the engine of a radio-controlled airplane that looked far too small to be pulling such a large payload. "What do you mean 'new'?" "When I first passed through this part of hell the banners moved about of their own accord. They required nothing to cause their motion." Because Moe used the plural, I began scanning the sky for other such 'beach advertisements'. After a while we had noted a dozen banners in motion in the sky over this portion of hell, some moving on their own while others were being towed by tiny r.c. aircraft. And always, below and somewhat behind the banners, there were crowds of people trailing. Eventually one of the planes passed close enough to us for me to get a sense of why all the interest. The banners sported slogans written in every imaginable language bidding people to follow. I saw an "Over Here!", a "Repent!" and a "Way Out!", probably more inspired by the term for 'exit' on the Underground in London than a colloquialism from 1960s America. Among those chasing the banners I noticed no sense of loyalty whatsoever. When two banners passed close to each other, each group of followers would lose members, but only as many as were gained from the adjacent group. "What in the world is the point of this exercise, Moe?" "We are in the vestibule of hell, so this is not yet hell proper. This is the place where those who refused to make a choice in life receive the fruits of their indecision. These souls would be considered opportunists, those who, in life, were only for themselves and were neither good nor evil. Theirs is a vigilant form of cowardice that determines to do nothing definite lest that choice keep them from doing the next thing that happens along. Through eternity these chase a banner while swarms of hornets sting them as they run over uneven ground. And watch the low spots. That is where moisture collects, where eggs are laid, and where the hornets pass through each stage of development. There are always some in the pupa stage in the low lying areas." Maggots. Uck! Again Moe slapped at his neck, caught something between thumb and forefinger and held it out for me to examine. It looked more like a common blow fly to me, but there was a distinct stinger between its compound eyes. "These souls took no side with good or evil, so they in turn are given no real place in the afterlife. I have heard rumor that included here are the angels who took no sides when Lucifer waged his battle against God." I looked up at the banners that had no visible source for their motion and wondered about what Moe had said concerning neutral angels. "But to choose not to choose is still a choice, Moe. If indecisiveness is a valid sin, this should be the most densely populated area of hell. Has there ever been a census to determine if the numbers here are on the increase?" "A census would be a task of bureaucracies, and those malfunction farther down. But now that you mention it there don't seem to be many more people here now than when I arrived, and that's been a good long while." Above and behind us I heard a throttle rev. I looked up and saw an r.c. plane and banner in a power dive. It appeared to be buzzing a small group of people that hadn't moved in all the while we had been there. They looked up just in time to scatter out of the path of the demonic kamikaze. I managed to read the banner as it zipped past and nearly burst a blood vessel trying to stifle my laughter. The banner read: " 'Indolence is sweet, and its consequence bitter' - Voltaire" . "I would make every effort not to laugh, Jerry. It may be interpreted as impolite." "Sorry. Moe, have you noticed what the banners are up to?" "Yes, they are leading people in the direction of the river. It is slow and methodical, leading them in a circuitous route, sort of like the children of Israel in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land, but it seems to be deliberate." "River. Styx?" "No, Acheron. That is the first river in hell and forms the outer border. I wonder if there comes a point when those in the vestibule choose to endure the punishments of hell out of utter boredom." "They may leave their assigned location?" "Only if they are choosing to move deeper into hell. We should move toward the river too." We began our trek joining a flow of people crossing the vestibule silently save for the sound of slapping away stinging flies. "Moe, why aren't these bugs pestering me?" "You smell wrong to them. Don't be astonished if you get a lot of that. You have an air about you, or hadn't you noticed?" I looked at my hand and was stunned by the way it seemed to phosphoresce. "What in the world is causing that?" "There is an explanation, and it involves the degree to which you are alive. But not everyone is going to notice. Self-absorption is a favored pastime. Have you noticed how little anyone speaks?" I had heard crying, surprised shouts of pain resulting from multiple stings, cursing and accusations, but very little conversation. The lack of interest in others made me wonder if interaction with people might prove unwise. Time would tell. But Moe's conversation was bringing up all kinds of questions. How does someone who quotes the Bible like a seminarian with an orthodox understanding of the faith end up a permanent resident of hell? "I've noticed. It seems like precisely the opposite of a gathering at church. In spite of background, ethnicity, location on the globe or favorite baseball team, any time I gather with other believers I feel at home. There is no such feeling here." "Yes, anyone who lives their life ignoring the reality of hell by presuming an eternal party come the afterlife is going to be sorely disappointed. Yet they will have no excuse, as the apostle Paul so aptly put it in his letter to the church in Rome." "Moe, you seem to have almost too much of an understanding of scripture to have not gotten the message during your life." "It's knowledge gained too late. Maybe I will have occasion to explain," he said and gestured ahead of us to where the stream of souls we had been walking with was collecting into a mass of disconsolate humanity. Above and beyond the crowd billowing smoke was visible. As the plume came to a halt a shrill whistle sounded. "That sounds like the blow off on a steam engine, Moe." "Yes. The world's population has grown considerably since Dante's day. Charon's ferry has changed over time to accommodate the increase." I began one of my favorite shopping mall activities and started watching people in the crowd both in front of and behind us. I witnessed young and old, male and female, hefty and petite, large pools of indifference, small pockets of anger, fear, surprise, and a few points of full-blown panic. The enraged in the immediate vicinity of the panicked beat the fearful into silence with fists, rocks, anything at hand just to shut them up. "I take it those folks can't die a second time?" I asked Moe after I had pointed out the altercation. "There is a second death ..." he said with a touch of anxiety. Tweet
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