As I ran from the shadows of the other beasts, the third of their cohort came before me. A she-wolf, lean and burdened with the cravings of every unfortunate soul who’d traveled this path. Her snarl and her bared teeth inspired a fear so great that I forsook my mountain destination for the darkness nearby, hoping to hide from the gaze of the lupine huntress.
As I ran into the dark and lost my way in the wilderness, I saw a form not much unlike my own, and called out, “Good man, please aid me.”
“I was once a man,” my rescuer began. As he recounted his history and his deeds, he became recognizable to me, the cadence of his speech reflecting his celebrated prose. When he explained he’d lived in Rome under Augustus and reached “I was a poet,” he erased all doubt about who was speaking.
“You are the great Virgil,” I stated. “Who chronicled the flight from fallen Troy and fair Dido’s tragedy in the bosom of Carthage.”
The poet, or the faint shade that still held his form, nodded his acknowledgement. “I am who you say. It is my task now to convey you forward.”
“Then you will help me face that beast, so that I may return whence I came?”
“I am here to take you on a journey to another realm. For the beast you encountered allows no man along her path, but drove you here with purpose. Come.”
As we entered on the steep and savage path, the poet spoke of our surroundings. Though we passed a sign urging any who entered to abandon all hope, my curiosity bested my despair. Even the arrival of Charon and his eyes of ember seemed a singular thrill in its novelty.
“No good soul ever takes its passage here,” great Virgil warned as we took our river journey, yet I remained focused on our surroundings until the moment we plunged into darkness, falling like men with seizing sleep. When I stood erect on the brink of an abyss, the poet bade me follow him into the blind world.
Virgil’s lack of fear stayed my own, and we entered the first circle. The air filled with sighs from sorrow without torments, and the crowds held many multitudes of infants, women, and men.
When I queried as to the reason for their fate, Virgil explained that they had come in the time before. “They did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism.” He continued as I examined this realm of limbo, incredulous. “For these defects, and for no other evil, we now are lost and punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”
“By ‘we,’ you suggest you count yourself among those punished thus?” I asked, and the Roman’s shade confirmed. Armed with that knowledge, I looked more closely at the crowds, and found I was no stranger to many of the figures moving all about us.
“Is that blinded man not Homer, the supreme storyteller of his age? Do I not see the bearded figure of Alexandria’s Euclid? And that greatest of inventors, Archimedes, who fell in Syracuse in Rome’s conquest of your dear Phoenicians?” Around them I found the finest minds of antiquity. Horace and Cicero and Plato. Men without whose ideas my modernity would be all the poorer, doubtless still mired in the darkest of ages.
“Please, we must continue,” Virgil implored. “We have many circles yet to view, and only I may lead you there in safety.”
I remained where I stood, glancing at the shades of Moses, Noah, Ruth, and the others left unharrowed, with no mercy granted even for the virtue of their own bloodlines.
“Then it was no action of yours that condemned you to this realm?” I asked my master. “Save the absence of a choice you could not have known to make?”
“Yes, but we have far more to see. We will view the true torments of the unjust, and you will see how minor is our punishment.”
“For what reason would I want to see this?” I queried. “For the beast that drove me here was fearful enough.”
“When we have finished, I promise you will journey to the realms of paradise, the finest fruit borne of mankind’s goodness.”
“Then this is not paradise? How comes that to pass?”
Virgil began to explain the promise of those realms to come, and their own congregations of great men and women wrapped in freedom from all suffering. When I remained obstinate, Virgil spoke of fair Beatrice, wrongly supposing I found him an inferior guide or wished to part his company.
“What could more be paradise than a realm full of our species’ brightest lights?” I implored. “Why would a simple soul like mine scoff at the chance to roam free among them? To converse with them as I have you, and glean all the knowledge they have to impart.”
The great poet struggled to answer. “I was sent to save you from that great beast, and to show you these realms rarely seen by man. For I can no longer pass this knowledge to the living, and it is to you this task must fall.”
“No, for the beast that drove me here must have meant that I find you, no less than Juno brought your Aeneas to his mission. For it was not the lion nor the spotted beast that pursued me, but their lupine compatriot.
“Was it not a she-wolf that birthed the founders of your great city? Who suckled the brothers ere their eventual quarrel? Why would she decide my way if not for me to find one of Rome’s leading lights?”
Virgil continued to protest, but soon conceded to my argument. It was now he who followed me, as I moved among the crowd and began to seek the wisdom of those who formed it. Before long, I’d joined a dialog between Herodotus and Livy about the virtues of Rome, and found my intellectual curiosity sated as never before.
My abandoned hope returning as I contemplated the sheer numbers of great figures sharing their fate in this ambiguous circle, I turned to the poet and voiced my chosen lot. “Yes, I have decided it is here I will abide.”
This piece originally appeared in Zoetic Press.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than sixty publications including the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including "Votes of Confidence: A Young Person's Guide to American Elections" (Zest Books, 2016 and 2020), "Rockin' the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries" (Zest Books, 2015), "The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias" (Fall River Press, 2011), and the upcoming "A Hot Mess: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Our World" (Zest Books, 2021).