Dante's Wood

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
All that I found revealed there by God's grace.
The Inferno


I snatched a glance over my shoulder to see him jogging down the lane, breath steaming in the golden autumnal air, his grey scarf blowing along behind him. Crunch! crunch! crunch! his boots dug impressions into the frosted ruddiness of the track: an otherwise sweet, comfortable noise to me, but “I’m not in the mood for it,” I muttered.

He pulled up beside me. “Hullo,” he said again, pantingly. He bent over with his hands on his knees, trying in the cold air to regain his breath. He had never been much of a runner after the accident. I waited with mute rudeness, hands in my pockets since I had forgot my gloves. What was the matter with clothing designers, who made the pockets in girls’ jeans so abominably small? I could barely get my hands in, and my hands are accounted small.

He fetched a quizzical look up at me under his brows. “Well, moody?” he asked. “What is it to be?”

I flopped both shoulders. “I don’t know. I’m just walking.”

“Well, you might get some place that way.” He straightened and held out an arm for me. “Then again, you might not. It depends on what road you are on.”

I wasn’t in the mood for booted feet in frosty ruts, I wasn’t in the mood to take his arm and let him walk with me. I wasn’t in the mood to take my hands out of my ridiculous pockets. But he had a way about him, and the next thing I knew I had my arm in his and we were strolling along together down the empty country lane. The wind was up and roaring in the nearby wood, whistling across the barren fields, snatching at our clothing. My companion’s scarf was going wild behind us; he kept his free hand firmly clamped over his cap to keep our lady North Wind from thundering off with it. For some time we walked in our own silences. His, I knew with a pang of jealousy, was country-born—a fresh, sweet kind of silence that swelled with the beauty of a year come down into its twilight; mine was the silence of a wolf-thing at the back of its cage, angry, hurting, waiting.

The lane took us down to a crossroads, where, without debate, my companion lifted me over a stile and we continued on down the narrow track that lead through a field toward the outflung tawny darkness of the wood. The wind was in its tops, sounding as with the ocean: I fancied the watered sky was the sea upturned and pounding against the trees as waves against rocks. It hurt: each rush of wind whistled into my crevices and thundered in the empty places of my soul. Each time the wind broke away I longed as with the longing of the flighting birds to be after it. But I couldn’t go. My arm was linked through my companion’s; my feet were firmly on the ground.

He stopped when we reached the middle of the field and indicated—as if I had not already been looking at it—the untamed sprawl of forest. “Rather glorious, don’t you think?” he shouted over the boom of the wind.

I stuck out my bottom lip irritably. “You know I don’t.”

His look was searching when he glanced at me. I wished he wouldn’t look, because I could never hide things from him. But truth be told I wanted him to ask, because I wanted someone to talk to. But for a few moments it was only the wind roaring between us while I stared down the silver throat of it, and he stared across the blade of it at me.

“I was thinking ‘show him the sun on the autumn fields,’ but you look more like ‘the dark wood fell before me.’ What has made you come all untuned?”

His words were spoken gently, but no matter how gentle he may be, the surgeon’s knife still cuts. I burst into tears—howling, frightened, angry tears that shook my little frame like a leaf in a gale. He put his arm around me and let me cry into the lapel of his coat, and all the while I told him what was wrong in broken, raging sentences.

“I don’t know what is wrong with me! I feel sick inside. I feel cut off from everyone and everything I love—even autumn is too far away. I feel cut off from everything: I feel adrift. I feel like everything good and beautiful is whirling by me and I am just a ghost that nothing can touch. I ache. I ache. I ache…”

I said all this over and over and roundaboutly, until at last I faded off into soft sobbing. Even the wind had dropped away a little; the sounding murmured in the distance. I felt nothing better for having cried my guts out; if anything, I felt emptier than before. It had been stupid and senseless of me to cry. The selfishness, the vanity, of tears made me sick.

My companion sniffed peremptorily. Adjusting his cap a little, he observed, “You wear your skin somewhat thinly.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I wonder…” He took his arm down and put my hand in his, and pulled me gently after him across the field. The knife-edged wind was cutting here and there around us with no real purpose. We walked into the face of it in an idle way as we had walked down the lane, and I wondered if anything would change for the better. I didn’t realize then that the cry had done me some good, and that our walk was bringing me some place important.

We were coming to the end of myself.

Where the woodshore washed up to meet the rugged scape of the field we paused, for a moment standing in a little tunnel of quiet where the wind could not reach. The scarlet of berries twinkled at us from the tangled growth of the forest. Far down the way I saw the elusive glint of tawny that was a fox’s coat.

“Don’t let go,” I said suddenly, staring unseeing after the fox. “If a wind comes, I might blow away.”

“Only to the back of it,” he said mildly.

But I gripped his hand harder, all the same, and continued to stare as one in a trance so that his next words came to me as if from a long way off.

“ ‘ If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall uphold me.’ ”

“If I take the wings of morning,” I murmured back.

He smiled wanly: I could hear it in his voice. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

For a moment something lovely with the loveliness of silver hung before me, like a plover’s feather caught on the wind—then it vanished, and I shivered through and through. “I am cold with wearing my skin so thinly.”

“Amphibious girl!” he said, giving my arm a rough rubbing. “What do you think you are doing, trying to live in the empty dimension? Because that is what this is really about. There is no light in That Dimension; no light, no space, no room, no food, no air to breathe.” His gaze—I had not been aware of looking round into his face—became suddenly dead serious. “You are starving yourself. What do you mean by it?”

He was angry with me. I could always tell when he was angry because he became inexplicably gentle in his tone in just a certain way; something jabbed painfully at the inside of my throat.

“I—” I sniffed. “I met a man called Laziness. He was going this way and asked if I wanted to follow.”

He pulled his head back with the gesture of an affronted horse. “You are hardly a John Bunyan. Did you inform him that you had a date with someone else rather important and you couldn’t keep him waiting?”

I tucked my lip between my teeth and did not answer.

He sighed. “What am I going to do with you…” He took away both hands and put them in his pockets, and stared frowning terribly down the length of woodshore to where the sinking sun was coming through with its last blaze of brilliance to turn his eyes uncanny gold. “You have no one to blame but yourself, you know. You feel cut off and betrayed, as if everyone and everything you loved suddenly turned against you. The truth is, my dear, you turned against them. You are starving your own self and cutting your own self adrift. If you take a searching look you’ll find your initials written down under the question ‘Who planted Dante’s Wood?’ ” His tone, which had grown rather hard through all this, softened again. “You are digging your own grave. Wouldn’t you rather like to come out of it now?”

I nodded miserably.

He held out his hand again between us, palm upward. “Draw nigh unto God,” he said, “and he will draw nigh unto you.”

I stared at the palm. He had gloves on, beautiful black doeskin gloves with a polished steel button at the wrist of each. It was stupid. The simplicity of it was stupid. Something in me rose up against it with the threat of insane laughter. I was dying like a flame out in the airless black, and I had only to look at the light to keep burning. I was starving without food, and all I had to do was pick it up and eat it. I was floating adrift from everything I loved, and all I had to do was reach out and touch it. It was stupid. I was stupid. Everything was plainly and simply stupid.

With a shaky, sobbing burst of laughter, I put my hand in his.

“There!” he said, swinging my arm as he pulled me back up the slope toward the lane. “The Infernal Bureaucracy has no idea the trick is that easy.”

Our feet crunched comfortably in the frozen grass. As we went, I risked a glance over my shoulder at the dragon-spiked view of the wood. The early autumn twilight was already going, leaving the trees a tangled mass of darkness. “I’m glad to be away from it now,” I said.

“Oh, never fear,” said my companion softly. “We will stand under its eaves again.”

We had forgot about the strength of the wind. Almost upon the instant his words were out of his mouth, a big gust of it hit us sidewise and North Wind tore away his cap. We drew up short, watching it go far above and out of reach, dwindling into a grey spot in the distance on the golden glory of the sky’s canvas.

I said disappointedly, "I liked that hat."

“Huh!” he mused. “So did I.”

14 ripostes:

  1. Ah, Jenny...

    I find I haven't got a thing to say. Perhaps it is too soon. Perhaps I need to mull over this fragment of shaken glory for a while longer. But I want you to know that I read it like a breath from another world, like a warm smile of understanding, like ... like a dream I should have had.

    Thank you. It was well-written, of course, but somehow I don't feel as if I can comment on that. I think instead I'll have to save a few paragraphs for it in your letter--which I am finally starting, I promise.

    (Odd, isn't it, how the difficulties we most readily despair over are so often the easiest to set right...)

  2. This was...well, pretty amazing. Even though I didn't get to know them for long, or learn all that much about them, I really love the characters here, and the writing was beautiful, but without seeming overdone or contrived. I think it has the feel of a classic, if that makes any sense.

    I guess I'm trying to say that I quite loved this, and thanks for sharing. Great story.

  3. Jenny, you have no idea how good you are. And if you did, I rather think you'd burst.

    I cried. I bawled. Jenny, this is soaringly beautiful and acutely painful all at the same time -- a queer, wonderful mixture of the two. And all I can say is thank you: Thank you for sharing this. I don't feel I want to put it all into words, out in the open for all to see, but I feel better for having read it.

    Between this, The Shadow Things, and everything else you have ever written, you are killing me with inklight and wonder.

  4. This is one of the most exquisite things I have ever read. You have used all the marvelous words in the world right here in this post so I have none left to use to describe it. 'Wonderful' and 'insightful' sound far too shallow but they're the best I can do.
    As Katie says, thank you, thank you for writing this, for giving us something beautiful and introspection-provoking to read.

  5. Well, Jenna, you can probably remain confident that you will meet these characters again. They have a habit of shadowing me. They are quite real, you know. I know them rather well - as well as one can know people.

    You know, as I was writing this, something whispered, "Megan." I don't remember what the point was, or why, but I knew at that point that you needed Dante's Wood as much as I did. We are so often of a piece, you and I.

    I am sorry, Katie. It's the twilight and the wind that does it to you. I know, because it does that to me, and conjures the most breaking thoughts. You know, I was quite nervous about this. I usually am. I thought, "What if no one understands? What if no one ever has been to Dante's Wood?" Of course, that didn't stop me from writing it, but the reactions took me quite aback. My husband said that I don't give myself enough credit and that I am better than I suppose, and I said "that's what Katie said," so I began to believe it a little. The trouble is that it looks like I just scrunch up my eyes and poof and beautiful words come out, when in reality it can be a grueling process to say just what I mean just the way I want to say it. I suppose what I mean is that I may be a decent conjurer of inklight, but I don't always realize it for the strain of the conjuring itself. And perhaps it is best that way.

    Liz, if I were a cat I would purr and curl up on your lap. Only, I'm afraid you would turn out to be a dog-person, and I would be out of luck. Your gratitude is great encouragement to me, but I have to say in return thank you, as you are so very understanding. It means as much to me as my writing may to you.

    And to Grace (who, sadly, can't comment on Blogger) grazie for taking the time to email me a comment! All your encouragements are yummy treats to me to keep me going. I am really very appreciative of all your time and consideration, for encouraging me. You all are the best.

  6. What deeps! I feel like I'm reading a more descriptive C.S. Lewis novel!
    It's the kind of writing that I can just barely comprehend through-and-through, buy yet its so beautiful and pristine that it's a pleasure to reread that sentence again, to make sure I understood.
    I love it, Jenny. Love it, love it, love it.


  7. That was a very powerful pieve of writing.. a piece that I think deserves some mulling over.

    This is Silky, by the way- I hope that you don't mind my following your blog?

  8. Ever since I read Dante's "Inferno" I have been toiling to understand it, and have not been able to bring myself to read the other two sections, for the first is still harrowing me. I didn't enjoy it, it was probably the most distressing piece of writing I have ever read, but I think I am beginning to understand it's /importance/.

    I'd like to read over this (your piece of writing) a few times more... when I read other people's interpretations or reflections on something, it helps me to understand better. And those characters are rivetting...

  9. I am very sorry that you did not enjoy Dante's Inferno, Bethany. I wish you might give it the benefit of the doubt. I read it in my literature class, and never have I found a fiction to so poignantly display the downward spiral, not only of the judgments of sins, but also of the degeneration of the Christ-less soul. The book is meant to be distressing, for it strives, though in the fashion of a poetic novel, to depict the truth. And the truth of sin is distressing. I think it ought to be. There is nothing one can do to sugar-coat sin nor wipe away the awful judgment that is meted out on it. But a woman once told me, reading the Inferno and stopping there is like going to Paris and only touring the sewer system. I would certainly suggest reading the Purgatorio and the Paradiso as well.

    As for this piece that I have written, please don't think of it as an interpretation, or really even a reflection. Dante's Wood is an idea, a picture that is widely recognized and can therefore be carried over to depict much the same concept, but used with different style. I merely borrowed the pictorial idea with which to help express my own.

  10. If I have toured the sewage system, then how can I find any beauty in Paradise? To live in Heaven, but be in the know that there are souls who have not made it there... To see and know what paradise is, but know that others are suffering and always will suffer, would be the greatest Hell of all. To put it simply, how could one enjoy Heaven if they knew that others were bound to suffer eternally in Hell? Even if, when you are in Heaven, you would be all knowing and all understanding.
    What is joy unless it can be shared? I'm sorry that I've warped the discussion somewhat.

    My dislike for the "Inferno" can be explained, in that it is the very depiction for why I have never looked happily toward the prospect of Paradise (if I ever get there), because I cannot see any joy at all in an eternal life of worship and truth, if that eternal life would be conducted in the /knowing/ that beneath me there would be an eternty of fire and anguish. And even if I didn't know, it would still /be/, if you understand me, and I don't think that our eternity in Heaven would be entailed in any sort of ignorance of the terrible consequence of sin.
    I'm sorry for being verbose, and repeating the same point in so many different ways- I often struggle to make my points clear in writing.

  11. You acknowledge that sin has a terrible consequence - mightn't that be because sin itself is terrible? Within the context of a holy and just God, we can rest assured that the punishment will always fit the crime (in having 'seven circles,' the Inferno depicts this rather splendidly). I cannot condone a pity for the damned. All men are sinners, all have defied their maker and denied him worship, and must, therefore, all suffer the consequence. This is justice, not tragedy. You cannot pity them as if they were the victims of a brutal and arbitrary deity.

    A man once said "Let justice be done, even should the world perish." Funny thing is, justice is that the world should perish. Man's willful fall plunged creation into futility, and we know that the verdict is that all will be burnt up in fire and made new at the coming of the Lord. All evil will be cast out - death and those who are dead with the second death will be defeated and cast out forever. For a follower of righteousness, this is not a tragedy (not as we define tragedy today) but the triumph of all good over all evil and something to which we long.

    I know that you protest that you cannot countenance being an inheritor of righteousness if others are left without the gates. I must remind you that their punishment is just that: punishment. Not sadistic torment, not a brutal tyranny of divinity over helpless humanity, but punishment for defying God, for spurning his most splendid gesture of mercy in the redeeming act of his son. It is almost unthinkable that a man could possibly turn away from such an offer - but then, it was probably unthinkable that Adam, in all his newborn innocent, could possibly defy the Godhead.

    "...does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And he did so to make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he had prepared beforehand for his glory..."

    Your argument seems to be that, if people must be sent to Hell, you would rather go to Hell with them than enjoy Heaven. And you are correct in supposing that you have a right to go to Hell. All men have a right to go to Hell. They clamour for that right rather loudly, so loudly as to drown out the preaching of the gospel which states that a way has been made for men to now enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The punishment for sin has been laid brutally, bloodily, fully and with mercy toward us upon the body of Jesus Christ. He endured sin and cross - you might very well say Christ endured Hell for us. We did go to Hell. We went there on the shoulders of the archetypical Passover Lamb. This, too, is mentioned in the Inferno. Our being able to go to Heaven is not judicial fiction. The price was paid, and it was paid in all its terrible fullness.

    The cry of a pitying soul is "Repent and believe!" not, "I would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!"

  12. I'm afraid I cannot agree with the comment that the condemned must not be pitied. Quite bluntly, if God held that perspective...well, I don't suppose there would really be much call for salvation, would there?

    At the same time, I realize it is necessary to hold a proper view of Hell. Sin is the utter embodiment of imperfection, and God is all that is good and righteous and holy. Seeing as though God cannot dwell with all that is Imperfect, Him being Perfect and therefore by His very nature rendered unable to do so, there must be a place for all that is Imperfect to dwell that is apart from all that is Perfect.

    The price has been paid, and paid terribly. It is by Christ's suffering that we are made perfect. And yet, it is God's pity for us that moved Him to extend that offer of grace. We all walk a road of condemnation, and we all are confronted by the blinding light of the Truth, which presents a new and different road. Those who choose to continue on the path that leads to separation from God, have done exactly that: chosen it. And while in pity we may - in fact, must, or else where is the reflection of God's love within us? - be moved to declare to them the Truth and urge them with all our hearts toward the salvation we have embraced; to live in guilt for their choice is beyond pity, it is denying God glory.

    If one feels guilty for having chosen the purpose of God over the scheme of Satan, we are gravely underestimating not only God's importance, but the significance of His having conquered. Our salvation is not for our glory; it is for His. Our very presence with God in Heaven glorifies Him, because in acknowledging our need for His salvation, we have acknowledged that He is God: we have declared His holiness, and we will continue to declare it for all of eternity.

    Turning to God is, in itself, an act of worship. To declare that we shall not find joy in being present with God because of the choice of those who have refused Him glory and worship, is in essence declaring the sacrifice of Christ to be void.

    I understand the desire to suffer that others might come to Christ. And on earth, we are called to do so - the very life of Paul is a call to that. But we must not discount the suffering of Christ by refusing to glorify God with joy for His great mercy, and instead choosing to dwell in remorse and guilt and anger toward God over the fate of those who chose the end that we all deserve apart from Christ.

    In Christ alone, my hope is found...

  13. I'm afraid my use of "condemned" is not clear enough. I did not mean those who are living the first life now: to them is given a way of escape through Jesus Christ, and to them the command to "repent and believe" is delivered. To them we turn our pity. By "condemned" I meant those to whom condemnation has been carried out, those who have died once by the course of fallen nature, and once by willful rebellion, and have cut themselves off by their own choice from the mercy of God.

    You are very right, Sparrow. (This is rather more than I meant to spark in a conversation, though Dante might be pleased.) There is grace, thank God, a heart of pity, one who delights in mercy. Mankind is not all cut off to perish under the hammer of his own willful rebellion. But those who perish have perished under justice, and those who turn to God and honour his way of escape do so only through the merciful sacrifice of his Son, on whom all the wrath of his justice was poured out for us. And you are very right for putting everything back up on end. Our redemption is a restoration, not mere kindly whim on God's part. We are being restored to perfection to glorify the Father; we are being repaired to true humanity so that we might delight in our Maker. We often forget that we were not always lost in sin; we often forget that there was once a time when creation reveled in her perfection. That is what we are going back to, and we can only go back to it through Christ. All other terms are the terms of Hell, and Hell will not prevail to conquer Eden.

  14. If we do not pity those in hell, or feel anguish for them, then the will to evangelise here on earth, while they live, will be sorely depleted. I feel sorrow for those living Godless lives, but not in the way that I feel sorrow for those who have lived a Godless life and are suffering the bane of it.