Dante fled through the streets of Florence, his gaunt figure stumbling along, leaving chaos in its wake. And fittingly so, for Dante’s magnificent brain had begun to crumble. The very brain that gave birth to the poetry that was to captivate minds all over the world for centuries to come with its protagonist’s odyssey through hell, today used its fearsome abilities to bring hell to Dante’s own doorstep.
Wherever he looked, he saw evidence of the nine infernal circles crystallise before him. Florence was no paragon of virtue and nobility, but even so, Dante’s visions bore such extreme elements of ghastliness that he was forced to admit that even humankind was not capable of this, and this hell came not from without, but from his own mind.
It is a terrible fate for great minds to descend into insanity, but that fate is rendered infinitely worse when one is aware of it, but helpless to avoid it. And this was the fate the Gods had reserved for this king amongst writers.
Before his very eyes, his beloved city was transformed into a seething pit of despair. Red-cheeked children no longer frolicked on the pavements, but in their place, goblins crept out of the ground, foaming at the mouth, slobbering with ravenous glee, feasting on excrement. Proud men and soldiers graced no more the street with their presence, but hideous abominations, humanoid only in the broadest sense of the word, stalked back and forth, sullying every inch of the street with their filth, tearing each other to shreds in a wrathful frenzy. He saw no sign of the heavenly beauty that Beatrice wielded, but the hidden nooks and crannies of the streets were chock full of malformed whores choking on the entrails that the Wrathful left behind. The city itself had taken on a visage that would deter the stoutest of men from lingering. Dante’s constitution could not bear the strain.
With a primal cry, he ran at full pelt, vowing not to stop until the city was behind him. Around him, the goblins gawked, the abominations glared, and the whores tut-tutted at this unseemly behaviour, only adding to the surrealistic anguish that was being inflicted on Dante. Where was his Florence, his beloved, sophisticated Florence, his refuge from the vulgarity of life? Not even in his darkest moments had he ever imagined that he would see it like this.
As he approached the outskirts of the city, the Chianti mountains rose before him, still pristine and majestic. Certain that the mountains were his salvation, Dante made straight for them, unsure of how exactly they were going to help, and yet overwhelmingly sure of the fact that they were to be his saviours.
Nearing the woods near the base of the mountains, Dante’s feeling of dread deepened with every step. The mountain he was making for was surrounded on all sides by a forest, one that Dante had frequented in his youth, whiling away the days reading poetry under its boughs. Now it stood shrouded in mist, with the howls of fell beasts and the smell of putrified flesh the only evidence of its existence. He knew better than to expect an easy passage to his salvation, but he was beginning to feel he did not possess the strength to stand this test.
Nevertheless, seeing no other path open to him, he plunged into the forest, keeping his eyes low to the ground, determined not to let his surroundings add fuel to his fears. That resolution held for all of five minutes, however, as a vicious snarl set Dante quivering uncontrollably and caused his eyes to search frantically for their source. The source was a leopard. A massively oversized leopard was seen thrashing around in the thick foliage, seemingly struggling with another, smaller leopard. Dante, to his immense horror, saw that the oversized leopard wielded genitalia of unnatural proportions and the deadly struggle was caused by the smaller leopard doing everything it could to avoid being impaled upon it.
Quickly averting his eyes, Dante managed to avoid seeing the finale of this grisly performance, with only the anguished wail of the smaller leopard bearing testament to the victory of the larger.
Dante hurried on, still shuddering from what he had witnessed. There was to be no respite, however, as he was soon brought to a standstill once again, this time by a lion. In contrast to the unrelenting gruesomeness that Dante had been subjected to, the vision of the lion’s perfect coat and full mane of hair was a welcome tonic to his eyes. Its strength and vitality on full display, the lion itself seemed to know its perfection, and walked the floor of the forest with an appropriately condescending strut.
Mesmerised by the graceful motion of the lion’s muscular legs, Dante’s eyes happened upon what seemed to be a carpet of living mass. Looking closer, he realised that the carpet consisted of lion cubs, each writhing and wriggling, attempting to claw its way out of its predicament. Each held in its place by its neighbours trying the same. With every step, the lion stamped down upon one of the cubs, crushing its skull beyond recognition, accompanied by the inimitable wail of a dying child.
Dante waited no more, and, his stomach dangerously close to emptying its contents, he fled further in, hoping to God that there was no more in store for him. But there was to be one last obstacle. Right in his path stood a she-wolf, her paw victoriously perched upon a buck’s corpse. As Dante approached, the she-wolf began to chew through the buck’s flesh at a ferocious pace. In a matter of minutes, the buck’s corpse was all but gone and then, without missing a beat, the she-wolf began to chew on its own leg, still chomping with the same gusto. Its roars of pain punctuated with growls of extreme satiety. Watching this morbid spectacle, Dante’s stomach gave up the fight, and his flight up the face of the mountain was intermittently patched with bouts of vomiting.
Dante was, with the help of the trauma brought on by his visions and due to his recent spate of vomiting, dangerously dehydrated and exhausted. Climbing up the face of a mountain, never an easy task, was rendered even less so by these unfavourable circumstances. His head began to swim and his vision began to narrow, and he knew he needed a rest and began wildly casting his eyes about in search of a shelter. A few metres up the mountain, he espied a cave. Muttering blessings gratefully, he entered the cave, descending lower and lower until the light from the sun outside was all but extinguished. After all the horrors his eyes had been forced to witness, the darkness was a much needed balm, and Dante went ever deeper into the heart of the mountain, hoping to snuff any chance of a return of his visions.
By this time, Dante was trusting to the sureness of his feet, his eyes had been rendered completely useless by the dark. He had been going downhill for a while, but suddenly felt a steep rise in the path. Having climbed some ten steps, his eleventh found no ground beneath it and sent Dante falling headlong into the darkness.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a huge fall, and Dante found himself on a flat floor, and, walking along the wall, Dante gathered that he stood in a cozy, cuboid room. His back to the wall he had just fallen down, he felt before him another wall rise up, with similar walls on either side closing him in. It occurred to him that he was trapped, but for the moment that comforted him instead of alarming him. He convinced himself that those visions could not reach him here and in this enclosure, deprived of sight, he was at the very least, safe from his own mind.
Time, always deceptive, gave no inkling of its passing to Dante, who was unsure whether he had been there for minutes, hours or even days. His stomach, emptied on the way to the cave, made its emptiness known by emitting growls that echoed in the dark, sounding uncomfortably like Dante’s experiences in the forest.
And then, almost imperceptibly at first, and then unmistakably, he began to see a light. It was not from a visibly discernible source. It certainly wasn’t sunlight. Its flickering told Dante that it emanated from a flame. His first instinct was to call out to the wielder of the flame. However, almost instantly, he remembered what sort of creatures his company had consisted of in recent memory, and the horrors he had witnessed in their presence, and that killed his voice as effectively as was possible. The flame, being the only source of light Dante’s eyes had been exposed to in a while, seemed to come from behind the wall, with the result that Dante still could not see himself or his surroundings. The only thing that had been leant visibility was the wall directly in front of him.
He saw it to be a remarkably smooth wall, and he wondered whether it was naturally so, or if it had been hewn by man. and if man were the architect, then it begged the question of why anyone would choose to wield his craft in the heart of a mountain where no natural light was accessible.
Even as he thought along these lines, he realised that the smoothness of the wall, coupled with the absolute darkness of everything else had leant to the room the aura of a platform wherein a performance was to be staged.
And what a performance it was to be!
Shadows began to dance on the wall before him. At first, they just seemed a menagerie of odd shapes and sizes, but soon he began to spot familiar shapes amongst the crowd. One figure, slightly hunched over, with a noticeable protuberance delineating an aquiline nose, Dante recognised as himself. Using himself as the focal point, all the other shapes now began to become recognisable and make sense. There were politicians and the Pope and there was Beatrice and there were his contemporary poets and writers and there stood his wife and his kids and an assortment of other acquaintances. Each shadow interacted with his own, showing in shadow art, a perfect representation of his life in short summation. All the key moments, some forgotten to Dante himself, were displayed to him now with unerring accuracy. As the performance rolled on, Dante found himself forgetting that he existed in corporeal form, and found himself gazing at the shadows as reality itself.
Suddenly the shadows shifted from humanoid shapes to ghastlier forms, and Dante realised with a shudder that they were replaying the events of the past day, a depiction of his own visions. He saw the goblins, the abominations and the whores. He saw the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf. And, as the last of the visions left the stage, he saw his own hunched figure contort and split in twain. Entranced, he watched with morbid curiosity as, from the depths of his own being, another humanoid shape emerged. Standing with all the grace and dignity of a nobleman, Dante did not need telling that this was the poet, Virgil.
The embodiment of Reason in his masterpiece, Virgil was now being depicted as leaving Dante’s body, an implication that needed no further explanation.
As Virgil exited left, the lights were extinguished, and Dante found himself plunged back into the dark, alone with his mind, such as it was, forever.
And thus ended The Alighieri of the Cave.