The foliage was not green, but a dusky hue;
The branches were not smooth, but gnarled and tangled,
No apple trees there, but thorns filled with venom.
Less sharp, less dense, are the savage places
Where live those beasts which hate cultured fields,
Between Corneto and Cecina's stream.
Here the hideous Harpies make their nests,
Who chased from the Strophades the Trojan band
With dire forebodings of impending doom;
Broad are their wings, with human necks and faces,
Their feet armed with talons, great bellies covered with feathers,
They sit and they wail on the shadowy trees.
Began the good Master: "Before going farther,
You should know that you are now within
The second round and there shall remain
Until you emerge on the horrible sand;
So observe carefully, and you shall see
Things that you'd hardly believe if I told you."
On every side I heard lamentations,
But saw no person who might be making them.
I stood unmoving and utterly amazed.
It seemed he believed that I might think
So many voices came from people
Who hid themselves amongst the trees;
Therefore he said: "If you break off
A single twig from any tree,
The thought you hold will completely vanish."
I then stretched forth my hand a short way,
And plucked a shoot from a large wild branch;
And the trunk exclaimed, "Why do you mutilate me?"
As the dark blood trickled down its side,
It added: "Why do you tear me thus?
Have you no feelings of mercy whatsoever?
We once were men, now rooted like trees;
Indeed, your hand should be more sparing,
Even if our souls were those of serpents."
As from a stalk, that is green and burns
On one end, while the other expels
Drips and hisses from the vapor that escapes;
So from that broken splinter gushed forth
Both words and blood; whereupon I dropped it
And stood as one that was filled with terror.
"O wounded spirit!" my Sage spoke up,
"Had he been able to believe what happened
If I had described it in my verses,
He'd never have raised his hand against you;
Because the thing surpassed belief,
My prompting, which I regret, induced him.
But tell him who you were, so he
Can make amends by refreshing your fame
In the upper world, whither he can return."
The trunk replied: "Your kind words allure me,
I cannot be silent; but be not vexed,
If I indulge in too much discourse.
I am he who held both keys
To Frederick's heart, and switched them around,
Opening and shutting, with skill so gentle,
That few besides me could know his secrets;
So great was my faithfulness to that high office
It cost me the life-blood that warm'd my veins.
The harlot who never turned her eyes
From gloating upon the household of Caesar--
A common vice and pest of courts--
Inflamed the minds of all against me,
And they so spread the flame to Augustus,
That my glad honors turned to bitter woes.
My soul, disdainful and disgusted,
Sought refuge in death to escape from scorn,
Making me, the just, unjust to myself.
I swear, by the roots that bear this trunk,
I never broke faith to the lord I served,
Who was well worthy to receive such honor;
And if one of you return to the world,
Let him restore my memory, which lies
Still prostrate from the blow that envy dealt it."
The Poet then paused when the sad words were ended,
And said to me, "Waste not a moment,
But speak and ask if more you would know."
Hence I replied: "Ask him again
Of that you think will satisfy me;
For I cannot ask, such pity fills my heart."
Therefore he resumed: "So may this man
Do freely for you whatever you wish,
Imprisoned Spirit! as you'll be pleased
To tell us how the soul is bound
Within these trees; and say, if you can,
Whether any from such bondage escapes."
At which the trunk breathed a sigh, which breath
Became articulate sounds like these:
"To you I briefly shall explain.
When the desperate soul departs the body
And is torn away to be by itself,
Minos consigns it to the seventh abyss.
It falls into the wood, no place
Assigned, but drops where Fortune hurls it.
And there like a grain of wheat it sprouts.
It grows up a sapling, then a knotty tree;
The Harpies cause pain while feeding on its leaves,
And with the pain, a vent to grief.
Like others, we shall return for our spoils;
But not that we may again be clad:
It's not right to have what one casts off.
We' ll drag them here, and up and down
This dismal forest our bodies shall be hung,
Each on the thorn of his wretched shade."
We stood and listened attentively to the trunk,
Thinking it might have more to tell us,
When we were surprised by a sudden tumult,
As when a man waits at his station
Who perceives the approach of the boar and the hunt,
And hears the beasts and crashing of branches;
Then lo! two emerged in headlong flight,
Naked and scratched, and fleeing so furiously
That they broke every blade of the wood before them.
The foremost cried: "O Death, come quickly!"
The other, who seemed distressed to lag,
Cried: "Lano! your legs were not so fast
At the joustings you engaged in Toppo's field!"
Then probably because his breath was failing,
He crouched himself behind a bush.
Behind them the forest was full of bitch hounds,
Black and ravenous, and swift of foot
As greyhounds who just escaped the leash.
They sank their teeth in him who had crouched down,
And tore him apart, piece by piece,
Then bore away the tortured limbs.
At that, my Escort seized my hand,
And led me to the bush, which vainly
Wept from its many bloody lacerations.
"O Jacopo of Sant' Andrea" it said,
"How did it help you to make me your screen?
What blame have I for your nefarious life?"
When my Master had paused beside him he said,
"And who were you, that through so many wounds
Breathe out with blood your sorrowful speech?"
And he to us: "O souls, that come here
To look upon the shameful massacre
That from me has so torn away my leaves,
Pray gather them together beneath this sad bush;
I dwelt in that city which adopted the Baptist
To replace its first patron, who in return
Forever with his art will work her woe.
And were it not there still remained
Evidence of him upon the pass of Arno,
Those citizens who once more reared her walls
Upon the ashes left by Attila,
Would not have spent their labor in vain.
For myself, my own house became my gallows."
Copyright © 1998 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. All rights reserved.