Just past the midway of this mortal life, I found myself once again in a gloomy wood astray, gone from the path direct, that is to say, lost and once more in need of a guide. And I cried out aloud, “Have mercy on me, spirits or living men, whate’er thou be, man or what once was a man. Help me, Virgil; I am off course in this dangerous place.
In that moment I saw a figure approaching, dressed in Florentine robes and wearing the poets' laurel upon his head. “You are not the noble Virgil, my former guide through these woods.”
“No, Master Durante degli Alighieri, I am not. That renowned poet was otherwise occupied when you called, and I have been dispatched in his place to assist you. I am Giovanni Boccaccio, and I count this meeting as a treasure for I am among your greatest admirers and, in life, was inspired by your writing. It is true that I was young when you were old but in this place time is disjointed.
“And now we must hurry; time may be disjointed here, but it is not unlimited. If we are to reach your destination before morning, we must take a shortcut – a dangerous path that will lead us through the Inferno, but having journeyed in those realms once before, it will be easier progress for you this time.”
With that my attendant took my hand and led me through those gates where I recognized that inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
We traveled together in silence until we came to the banks of that boiling river of blood, The Phlegethon which winds around the seventh circle of hell, wherein are boiled the souls of those who committed violence against their neighbors. I remarked to my guide, “The river here seems much wider than before, it has flooded over its banks.”
“Indeed,” replied Boccaccio, “the levees are hard pressed to contain the floodwaters. A corps of engineers is working day and night (if such temporal designations have any value here) to strengthen the walls and to build them up to prevent a catastrophic breech.”
We continued some time in sight of the howling river and I began to hear two voices, shouting at each other. The first, in a slow twangy accent shouted, “This is all your fault you jackass!” To which the second replied, in a more cultured voice, “Let me be clear; it is your fault!” And they continued like this, never ceasing.
“Boccaccio, tell me, who are these that argue so?”
“The first,” said my guide, “was the scion of a wealthy family and the proud leader who allowed his country to be involved in a series of disastrous and expensive wars based on wicked lies and a murderous desire for revenge.”
“I can easily understand why such a man would be brought to this place. And the second?”
“The second followed him, and, after a time, brought those wars to an end.”
“Then should he not be regarded as a man of peace? Why is he confined here?”
My guide pointed, as we had come around a bend in the path, and I could see the man of this second voice. He could not stand upright for he was bent low by the weight of a noble medallion that hung around his neck. “He is here, like the first, for his violence against his neighbors. While he publicly brought the former’s wars to a conclusion, he continued, even increased secret violence committed from a distance. And, despite his reputation for peace, continued to supply arms to other nations committed to murder and violence against their neighbors.”
I paused and shuddered. Goose pimples dotted my flesh despite the heat of the boiling Phlegethon. “Please,” I said, “Let us not linger here.” Boccaccio took my hand again and led me on. The path to which he directed my steps carried me to my destination before too long and I was safe again. But the memory of that second journey through the Inferno has never left me.