First, Big Step!
Dante was not lost in a dark wood. A forest sulked silently far off to his left. Beyond that, enormous, black mountains rose up, angular and defiant. But the road where Dante sat astride his grey horse was awash with sunlight on that autumn morning. It might have seemed cheery, were he given to such a mood that day – though like most of his days since being driven from Florence, he was not. But even neglecting the rider’s dour mood, the whole countryside seemed to lack something: light abundantly overflowed, but there were no sounds beyond the horse’s footfalls – and even these seemed small and muffled, though the horse was a big, plodding beast – no smells, and the air didn’t carry to Dante’s tongue the woodsy tang it should at that time of year. He looked to the mountaintops and thought it right to withhold joy from a scene so unnatural, flat, and soulless.
Dante was also not midway through our life’s journey. He had been wandering Europe for several years already, and he had started his exile at age thirty-seven. So even with the rather generous, biblical estimate that our lifespan is set at three-score and ten, he had more years behind him than ahead of him. But a life of exile had its own, special indignities that could age a soulful, sensitive man like Dante even quicker, making him more weary and despondent than a happy and content man would be at a much more advanced age. Most days, Dante felt very old indeed.
Never a handsome man to begin with, sometimes when he saw his face since leaving Italy, Dante wondered if its ugliness had been exacerbated and turned inward to fester and poison him in some more permanent, irreparable way. Often when he contemplated the afterlife – or even worse, the resurrection, with its more complete, perfected forms of retribution – this fear froze him and all he could do was repeat the prayers of childhood, the mantras of innocence and hope that corresponded so little to frightened, cynical middle age. For it turned out that crawling to some petty potentate’s frigid, ramshackle castle to beg for supper was the least onerous or embarrassing part of Dante’s new lifestyle. Far more demeaning and debilitating was the dance of dependency and sycophancy that would then ensue, the doggerel he’d have to write for the ruler and his court, celebrating all their munificence, bravery, and nobility: given how meager were their various accomplishments, Dante had to take poetic license all the way to outright, culpable lies in order to compose the verses they wanted, and for which they would tolerate and support him. And dear God, if they fell in “love” and required poetry to aid them in their pathetic quests to copulate like the beasts they mostly were: that had to be the worst of all – the actual, literal whoring of ideas and beauty, so that others could pander and seduce in their ugly, wretched flesh. There is humility, and then there is humiliation; worse, there is the humiliation one actively longs for, pursues, and embraces, like a dog returning to its own vomit. That was Dante’s life, and he loathed himself for it.
If there had at least been the satisfaction of being able to produce something good, true, and beautiful, while whoring himself to these illiterate barbarians, it might almost have seemed worth it – a kind of devil’s bargain, in which the value of his “real” art would outweigh and counterbalance all the sinful trash he was forced to produce in order to survive. Dante had thought like that at first, as the exact contours of his life in exile became clearer to him, but lately it had seemed like a useless evasion. Better just to own up to the sinful wretch he had become and beg the Lord to forgive and heal him.
On that nondescript road on that featureless day, Dante once again burned with shame at the compromises, lies, and pandering he had willfully perpetrated in the name of survival, knowing these were far worse and more culpable than any of his wrath against that monster Boniface, or even for his blinding arrogance at his own talent, for which he was sometimes not sufficiently grateful to God. He prayed to God for punishment for all such affronts against Him – not with the hope of childish prayers, but with the steady, sober resignation of middle age.
Dante dragged the gaze of his small, hard eyes from the mountaintops and fixed them on the road ahead. And on that day without savor, Dante finally smelled something: he smelled smoke. Not the pressing, earthy smoke of burning wood and leaves, not the heady, rich smoke of roasting meat. Those kinds of smoke would be black, and their odors would be alive. Up ahead to the right, the smoke was white, thin, and sickly, and its smell was dense but piercing, something raspy and malignant. That silent day was then filled with similarly harsh, diseased sounds – an explosion, shouts, and the high, long shriek of a woman. For all his harsh judgment of himself, Dante was no coward, and he automatically nudged his horse with his heels, urging it ahead faster.
The stench increased and the tumult rose as Dante rode forward, though the intensity and clarity of the sun did not change in any way at all.