The Circle of Lust
I became aware and realised that I was lost in a dark wood. I was very unnerved. I was shocked to suddenly sense a presence in this foreboding place and looked over my shoulder. A man was standing there close enough to touch me. Silently appearing behind me. He was about 50 years old and in the darkness, I imagined that I could see right through him.
“Welcome to the entrance to the Circles. The Gate of Hell.”
I felt myself falling… into a deep place. Eventually, I stood on the banks of a river as a small boat approached us. The ferryman took one look at me and refused to allow me on board. My companion spoke a few words to him then beckoned me to come forward. It seemed he was known around here and must have commanded considerable respect and had great influence in this strange place. The ferryman took us across the river.
I stepped out of the boat onto rocky ground and read an inscription above a door: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate".
People were walking forwards with their heads on backwards, unable to see ahead. My companion explained that they were the fortune-tellers that in life tried to look ahead and into the future.
“Do you mean they are dead?” I asked in shocked surprise. I felt faint.
“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 I have free movement everywhere. I am Virgil, a Roman poet.”
I stood in silence trying to collect my thoughts and in the illumination coming through from the other side of the Gate, I could see that Virgil was an apparition. A ghostly figure with no substance standing in the still air.
“The sign above the entrance stated that I should ‘Abandon all hope’. What have I done?” I was troubled by the implication.
“You are not dead. It’s an instruction for the dead only. We are at the bottom of Hell in the inner Second Circle reserved for those guilty of Lust. The First Circle at the centre is occupied by Lucifer himself. Those unfortunates who come down this far are the unrepentant souls who never accepted their lustful sins in life. There is no escape for them from Inferno.”
As we talked about Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio I became more confident and began to understand what it meant to be here. I thought about my own life and where I could end up. Hopefully, it would be Purgatorio, a place for spiritual growth where I would be escorted by an angel. Or maybe the heavenly Paradisio.
Souls were being thrown around above me in a violent wind that had no obvious source.
“Francesca? Francesca da Polenta?” I exclaimed. Seeing the swirling form of Guido Novello da Polenta’s aunt in Hell was indescribably shocking. Guido was once my host in Ravenna and it was there that I had seen a portrait of his then long dead aunt.
“Yes, that was my name, but now I am Francesca da Rimini,” she indignantly retorted. “My companion is Paolo Malatesta,” said the forlorn young woman, touching the soul with whom she was locked in an embrace. “We were murdered by my husband. Put to the sword. We shouldn’t be here.”
I was puzzled since I had learned from Virgil that this place was for ‘carnal malefactors’.
“Paolo Malatesta. I met you once in Florence where you were capitano del popolo. But tell me, Francesca, why are you both here in this terrible place where even the sun is silent?”
“I was tricked into a political marriage with Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto.
“Paolo is your brother-in-law?” I interjected, somewhat surprised.
They were swept away in an apparent gust of wind, but returned during a respite. Francesca, ignoring my interruption, 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 crude and deformed man as Gianciotto so the marriage was fixed up behind my back by sending his handsome and younger son Paolo to act as a proxy. I’d never even met Gianciotto. I knew nothing of this deceit until the day after my arranged marriage. I am still furious about how my family could use me like that. The Malatestas were a very powerful family. I loathe all of them. Except…”
Francesca looked into Paolo’s eyes, smiled and touched his face. They swirled around in their locked embrace. In tormented happiness.
The winds seemed to still again and Francesca went on:
“When Paolo came to Ravenna from Rimini 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 after I had endured my marriage, we read a book that described Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit love affair. We were both completely seduced by the story and I realised I couldn’t face my future Hell on Earth with Gianciotto. It was my horrible husband’s fault that I fell into the arms of his brother. We were betrayed and he eventually 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. But then he finished off Paolo. He’s an awful man and will rot in Caina for his crimes.”
I felt an overwhelming compassion for her plight and with my sorrow in her demeanour, I began to weep. I fainted.
“Dante! Dante! Dante Alighieri!”
I became aware of the wailing and screaming, but couldn’t be sure whether the calls were in concern or anger. I didn't even feel the violent wind that threw the damned souls about in their never-ending torment. I sat upright on a rock and looked upwards into the air filled with those swirling apparitions uncontrollably being thrust about.
“Oh, Francesca, your tale is so awful. And how do you know my name?”
“Your guide told me,” she explained.
“Surely, this place is for unrepentant sinners?” I questioned. “The Second Circle of Lust. To be here you have committed a very grave sin.”
“I did not commit murder. Twice.”
Francesca’s mood changed in an instant becoming almost joyful again.
“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. To imagine that I would consider a visit to Hell a social call. And to be pleased. I very nearly laughed at the comical situation and wondered even if she truly appreciated that she was dead.
In her demented mind, any blame was not hers and the sadness was for herself and not because of what she had done. Unlike Gianciotto there was no remorse in her. I began to understand the difference between belief, truth and lies.
I was angered at her attempted deception.
“You failed to renounce your sin before you arrived here. And you are still in denial about it. It’s now too late. The two of you will never leave this place. You are condemned to be here in your embrace forever.”
© Louis Brothnias (2011)