The Inferno of Passion
I was lost in a dark wood. Yellow autumn leaves were occasionally fluttering down to the ground adding to the blanket already covering the dusty ground. I could see rocky cliffs close-by. I felt an intense shiver pass down my back when I sensed a presence in this foreboding place. I looked over my shoulder to see a white-bearded man standing behind me. I spun around to face him. He was about 50 years old and close enough to touch me. I thought I could see through him. I heard a thundering crack and the gloom turned into a brightness that hurt my eyes. The figure seemed quite untroubled. I was shocked to see an opening had appeared in the rock face. I struggled to draw breath in the blast of hot air.
“Welcome to the entrance to the Circles. The Gate to Hell.”
The figure moved towards me and as I instinctively walked backwards, I stumbled and felt myself falling… down. Down. Down. I landed on my back, but felt no pain. With some difficulty I stood up and found myself on the bank of a river. A small boat approached us and its ferryman took one look at me and refused to allow me on board. My companion, who had somehow followed me, spoke a few words to him then beckoned me to come forward. The ferryman looked straight into my eyes. I felt them burning in its stare. Black eyes underneath a hood. A face in shadows. My guide was known in this infernal place. I felt I had witnessed respect and I was completely humbled by it.
The ferryman sat at the back of the narrow boat and rowed us across the river in silence. Watching me. Studying me. When the boat reached a sandy shore, I hurriedly stepped out where several isolated rocks stood like sentries. I read an inscription above a wooden door-frame.
“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate".
I cautiously passed through the doorway to meet with a stench like a charnel house. Charred flesh. Inside was a huge cavern where people were walking forwards with their head facing behind them, unable to see ahead. I was told that they were the fortune-tellers who in life tried to look into the future.
“Do you mean they are dead?” I asked.
“Of course, and it’s why Charon did not want to take you across the river Acheron. You are a living soul. I’ve been in this place for 1400 years and have free movement everywhere. Even outside. I am Virgil, a Roman poet.”
I couldn’t move and felt I had become one of those rocky sentries. In the oppressive heat I felt faint and managed to lower myself onto a small rock. I tried to collect my thoughts and in the brilliant light from the many fires around me, I could see that Virgil was an apparition. A ghostly figure with no substance floating just above the ground in the still air.
“The s…s...ign above the entrance st...st...stated that I should ‘Abandon all hope’,” I stammered. “Wh...what have I done?”
“You are not dead. It’s an instruction for the dead only. We are in Hell. In the Second Circle reserved for those guilty of Lust. The worst place you could not even imagine is beneath the Ninth Circle of Caina. At the centre of Hell. It is occupied by Lucifer himself. Those unfortunates who fall as far as that last Circle are those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. Where you are is for unrepentant souls who never accepted their lustful sins in life. There is no escape for any of them from Inferno.”
As we talked about Paradisio, for virtuous non-Christians, Purgatorio and Inferno, I began to understand what it meant to be here. The Circles of Inferno descending and getting hotter and more terrible. I thought about my own life and where I could end up. Hopefully, it would be Paradisio, a place for spiritual growth where I would be escorted by an angel. I felt my confidence growing.
Wispy shapes were being thrown around. The souls of the dead. These apparitions and the ferocity of the violent wind above me were terrifying. The turbulent air was hot and insufferable, though we remained unmoving, Virgil’s thin robe just gently rippling as though in nothing more than a breeze. The smell of death was like the fragrance of a flower, but mixed with the pungent odour of charred bodies. Fear had the bitter taste of lemons.
Two forms fell from the air above and gracefully floated towards me.
“Francesca? Francesca da Polenta?” I exclaimed. Seeing the swirling form of Guido Novello da Polenta’s aunt in Hell was totally unexpected. Indescribably shocking. Guido was ruler of Ravenna where I was once a politician and it was in Guido’s office that I had seen a portrait of his then long dead aunt.
“Yes, that was my name, but now I am Francesca da Rimini.” Francesca spat the name out with real venom. She then looked into the eyes of the soul with whom she was locked in an embrace and spoke so softly that I could just hear her words: “My companion is Paolo Malatesta.” Francesca’s turned towards me and she screamed out: “We were murdered by my husband. Put to the sword. We shouldn’t be in this awful place.”
I was shocked by the violence of her retort.
“Paolo Malatesta.” My eyes opened wide and my eyebrows arched as I looked towards him. “I met you once in Florence where you were capitano del popolo. I shifted my gaze back to Francesca and asked why they were both here in this terrible place.
“I was tricked into a political marriage with Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto.”
“Paolo is your brother-in-law?” I blurted out.
They were swept away in a gust of wind, but returned during a respite. Francesca ignored my interruption and continued her story.
“Our two noble families had been at war for a long time and when peace was… negotiated, I was given as an offering to bond the families together. My father knew I’d never willingly marry such a vile and deformed man as Gianciotto, so the marriage was fixed up behind my back, sending his handsome, younger son Paolo to Ravenna to act as a proxy. It was not unusual to arrange such matters in this way. I’d never even met Gianciotto and knew nothing of the details until the day after my marriage. I am still furious about how my family forced me into a nightmare. How they could use me like that. The deceit. The Malatestas are a very powerful family and I loathe them all. Except…”
Francesca’s eyes intently studied Poalo’s face. She smiled lovingly and gently touched his cheek with her fingertips. They were yet again lifted from the floor and swept away to join other couples swirling around, each pair entwined in an embrace. All smiling in their tormented happiness.
The air became still again and they both gracefully descended and hovered beside Virgil, just above the sandy ground where I sat on a rock. Francesca went on: “When Paolo came to Ravenna to oversee the nuptials, we instantly felt a mutual attraction even though Paolo was duty bound to settle the marriage contract. We walked and talked together when we could and on one occasion, we together read a book that described Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit love affair. We were both completely seduced by the story and after I had endured my marriage for just a few days, we became lovers. I knew then that I could no longer face my future Hell on Earth with Gianciotto.”
Francesca paused as a strong wind caused the flames of the many fires to dance about in a frenzy. Both she and Paolo remained stationary, her hair gently wavering. It become tangled and she raised her arms, shook her head and tugged at her hair. Her face was contorted into a grimace, her teeth clenched and lips apart. The pure rage unsettled me. The fierce wind became calm once more.
“My connivance horrified me,” Paolo whispered. “If there is any blame it is all mine. Francesca was used and I willingly played my part in the wicked arrangements.” Paolo’s expressionless face revealed his despair and distress.
The relentless wind took them away again. My compassion for their plight was overwhelming and I began to weep. I must have briefly fainted.
“Dante! Dante! Dante Alighieri!”
I heard the wailing and screaming, but couldn’t be sure whether the calls were in concern or anger. The violent wind continued to throw the damned souls about in their never-ending torment. I scrambled onto the rock and sat upright, looking upwards into the air filled with the couples being uncontrollably thrust about.
Francesca, Paolo and Virgil floated serenely side-by-side and in front of me.
“Oh, Francesca, your tale is so dreadful, but your behaviour is shameful.” I was confused since I had learned from Virgil that this place was for ‘carnal malefactors’. “I don’t understand how you can be unaware of why you are both here. This place is for unrepentant sinners.” I stated. “The Second Circle of Lust. To be here you have committed a very grave sin.”
Francesca looked away from me and towards Paolo. With the palm of an opened hand, she once again touched his face.
“That we were committing adultery never crossed my mind. It was my horrible husband’s fault that I fell into the arms of his brother. One fateful day, Gianciotto caught us together in my bedroom. The two men fought ferociously and when Gianciotto’s sword was thrust towards Paolo, I jumped between them and was killed. As my shade left me I saw that Gianciotto was distraught. He finished off Paolo, pushing his sword through his chest. His own brother.” Francesca paused as her eyes welled up. “I did not commit murder. Twice. Giancotto is a terrible man and will surely rot in Caina for his crimes.”
Francesca’s mood changed and in an instant she became joyful again. Her passion overcame any of the terrors I felt she must have.
“I am so pleased that you have come here to pay us a visit.”
I realised immediately that she had lost all reason and must be mad. I thought of the dilemma she must endure. Hopelessly held in the vice between a forced marriage with the hated Giancotto and her love for his brother, Paolo.
Francesca had described Inferno as awful, yet she appeared to be happy. To imagine that I would consider a visit to Hell a social call and for her to be pleased by my visit. I very nearly laughed at this Divine Comedy and wondered even if she truly appreciated that she was dead. In her troubled mind, she had not done anything wrong. I began to understand the difference between belief, truth and denial.
Virgil took my arm. “We must go. The upper Gate will soon close and you must escape now.”
I turned to look at the two lovers for a final time and felt tears rolling over my cheeks as the irony struck me like a cannon-ball to the mid-riff that forever may be to me only until my death, but Francesca and Paolo were already dead. Eternity for them could never end and they would never leave Inferno.
© Louis Brothnias (2018)