Even the terrain in hell can change.
As Dante and Virgil head into the first round of hell’s seventh circle, they stand on the edge of a devastating and treacherous pit. No accidental tourist, Virgil has passed through “this dark way to the depths of Hell” before; yet he notes that the topography, on this journey, has changed dramatically (112). Dante describes it as a “ruin” similar to “the result of an earthquake/or of some massive fault in the escarpment—” (111). Given the photographs of downed houses, upturned roads, and piles of rubble from Haiti, Chile, or eastern Turkey, it isn’t hard to imagine the “broken cleft” our poet and his guide saw. Without warning, earth and hell rip open and then seal off their wounds like a boxer’s bloody mouth opening and closing.
My Uncle Richie was a pugilist and a Jehovah’s Witness; he would have seen no accident—indeed, only continued portent—in the physical, human, and spiritual upheavals of the last few months. Virgil looks at his “hellscape” and also sees the hand of God at play. After all, it was in the coming of Christ, as he “took/ the souls from Limbo, that all Hell was shaken…” (112). Virgil goes on to say that, in that eventful moment, he “thought the universe felt love/ and all its elements moved toward harmony,” though we see more convincing evidence in this canto of “ancient rock…stricken and broke open” (112). To my ear the poetry in these lines and in this canto soar, even though they do so, like a bird flying down a mineshaft, in hell’s ever darkening, deepening, shape-shifting landscape. (Mi dispiace, Dante, for not unpacking more of it here and by so doing seeking to revel in those moments of exquisite poetry.)
The river of blood proves to be the most obscene and disturbing part of this scene. The Minotaur didn’t have it easy above ground, and in hell he’s as dodgy as the path Dante and Virgil must navigate to pass him. The centaurs, with their bows and arrows at the ready, have a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Split between man and beast, their very physical being makes them possessors of a (potentially) terrible, unpredictable power. (Just like animals; just like us.) And yet, outside of the few moments when their arrows are turned toward this creature who “moves what he touches,” their attentions remain trained on the souls cooking, at various depths, in the river (113). Somehow, I expected the river of blood to be red, but it is instead a “scalding purple” in my translation. A gruesome reduction.
In hell, I’m beginning to realize, all of a river’s good—indeed much of nature’s good—appears turned on its ear. True, earthly rivers cause destruction and wreak havoc, yet they also make life possible. They replenish the land as they flow seaward. They transport us and our “goods,” literally and metaphorically, up and down river. Crossing the Mississippi or flying above the Colorado makes easy a sense of wonder. Rivers baptize us, they heal us, they usher us from one shore of our existence to the next. They don’t turn into the burning Cuyahoga River, in other words, without some sin. Nor do we get, without some sin, a river of blood that feeds into itself, in a loop with depths both profound enough to cover a man and shallow enough for some critters to barely wet their hooves.
As children we used to prick our fingers and become blood brothers/sisters with the other kids in our neighborhood. Someone always had the needle if someone else had the will. We might not all have been born of the same family, from the same blood, yet by combining our red sap we could become kin to one another and symbolically unite our family trees. We went around saying that we were brothers and sisters to one another, not only because of this ritual, but because someone had heard at church that we were all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For a few weeks, this neighborly, embracing notion of “blood” relations took off like a match to dried grasses.
Everyone hanging out in the river of blood either ignored or forsook that basic notion of brotherhood, even though their sins appear to be on a sliding scale—a hierarchy which leaves Dionysius and Alexander up to their eyelashes and a bunch of cats, whom Dante recognizes, free from the waist up. Though of a similar type, not all of these sins are created equal. Is Eichmann covered over, Ted Bundy bare from the shoulders up, and woman who poisoned her neighbor wading up to her kneecaps? The centaurs may be ready to shoot them back down when they get “uppity,” but these questions invite questions about the nature of sin and hell and justice.
Nessus guides Dante and Virgil expertly past the river to “deeper Hell,” explaining the various figures and their sins along the way. At one telling moment, Virgil raises his hand to hush Dante, “Let him be the teacher now, and I will listen” (114). I wondered what Nessus was thinking, whether this was all in a day’s work for a centaur and a soldier of sorts. After he carries them across the river, he goes back across the ford without fanfare. There is work. There is hell. There is the reality of blood. Much like, when we as girls asked my father about Vietnam, “Have you ever killed anyone?” All of the blood in him froze. He didn’t answer. He walked upstairs, back to his work, without saying a word.