Today, Lise and Kevin explore “Into the Inferno” by Jordan Fash, submitted to Zoetic Press for NonBinary Review #19: Dante’s Inferno.
“What is Dante’s Inferno?” Dan asked.
“Come on,” Gabe replied. “The fact that you’d even ask me that is insulting.” The two boys stopped at the crosswalk; several cars zoomed between them and the school.
“I’m just trying to help you review for the exam,” Dan replied. “I know for a fact you haven’t been doing the reading.”
“Two things,” Gabe said. He stepped forward and they began to cross the street. “First, this exam is two months away. Second, I read the Inferno.” Dan gave him a dubious look. Gabe amended his statement with, “I read most of it.” When Dan’s expression didn’t go away, Gabe added, “Fine. I skimmed a lot of it. But I did read some of it.” They got to the sidewalk and headed into the parking lot.
“I appreciate the honesty,” Dan said with a smile. “I just want you to do well on this. Everyone says Mrs. Stearns’ semester final is the hardest one we’ll ever take in high school.” Gabe gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “This is what’s frustrating about you,” Dan continued. “You just act like you don’t care about anything.”
“That’s not true,” Gabe corrected. “I care about plenty of things. What I don’t care to do is spend all my time worrying about quizzes and note cards instead of actually being part of real life.” They arrived at the glass double doors.
“And by real life,” Dan said, “I assume you mean Riley Collins?” Gabe stopped short of grabbing the handle and wheeled around.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said and pulled the door open. They stepped inside to join the swelling mass of students moving through the halls.
“You can’t fool me,” Dan said. “I know that deep down you’ve been in love with her since that day in the library.”
In the first few weeks of school that year, they had been shooting a video for Gabe’s segment of the school’s weekly newscast. They both joined video production when starting high school, Dan taking the role of filming and editing while Gabe became the on-camera talent. This usually included ridiculous costumes, pranks, and occasional announcements on the school PA system. They were halfway through filming an episode that involved Gabe battling the spirits of long dead janitors in the library while dressed as a Ghostbuster when a blonde girl they didn’t recognize approached them. Gabe went silent at the sharp expression behind her dark rimmed glasses.
“Do you mind keeping all the noise down? It’s pretty annoying,” she said. Gabe was speechless, never having had his antics treated this way before. It was Dan who said something first and apologized. They soon find out she had recently moved to town. To Gabe’s dismay, Riley quickly joined the student council and started pushing for school sponsored ACT prep at Burlington High.
The momentum of the crowd continued to carry Dan and Gabe forward. “What is it about her, Gabriel?” Dan asked. “What makes your heart burn with red hot love for Riley Collins?” he asked.
“You’re ridiculous,” Gabe snapped. “I’m not in love with her. She wants us to start going on college visits. We’re juniors! Why are we thinking about college right now?” They turned down the English hallway. The crowd began to thin.
“She just wants to be ahead of the curve,” Dan said. “I think you secretly like that. And that she called you out. She’s pretty and smart. What’s not to like? Not that you really have a shot though.”
“I appreciate that,” Gabe replied.
“I’m just saying. She’s very studious. And you?” Dan shrugged, hoping that motion would finish the statement for him. “You know?”
“To answer your question,” Gabe said, “You know, the one that started this whole digression? Dante’s Inferno is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet from the thirteenth century. In it, Dante is taken on a tour that descends through hell, beginning in the dark wood and ending in his ascension through the center of the earth.” Satisfied at the surprised expression Dan wore, Gabe gave him a smug smile.
“Not bad for skimming,” Dan replied. Gabe turned to face forward again. The classroom was a few feet ahead on their right. Directly in front of them, Riley Collins was waiting to walk inside.
The boys came to a stop. Gabe’s heart picked up. A familiar sensation returned. He felt his stomach churn, a feeling he feared might make him throw up but also one that he didn’t want to leave.
“Hey, Riley,” Gabe said with an involuntary wave.
“Hi,” she said back. She swept past them and into the classroom. Dan turned to Gabe and nudged him.
“Nice, man,” Dan whispered.
“Shut up,” Gabe said. He pushed Dan aside and walked into the room. Class started with a sweat inducing vocabulary quiz that Gabe had completely forgotten about. He glanced around the room every time someone stood up and handed theirs in. They went one at a time until he was last, keenly afraid Riley was watching him.
But why was he afraid of that?
Once Gabe turned his in, Mrs. Stearns started her lecture.
“Continuing our unit on Dante,” she said, “we’re going to be going over Beatrice today.” She began to write on the board. “Dante said she was the guiding force behind his whole life. She influenced everything he did and wrote. While she’s referenced as a character in the Inferno, having sent the poet Virgil to guide Dante through hell, it’s generally agreed that she was a real person.” As she went on, a question occurred to Gabe.
“So Beatrice was his girlfriend?’ he asked. “Did he ever get a ring on it?” Several classmates laughed.
“No,” Mrs. Stearns said. “She married someone else. So did Dante. Beatrice died young though. Likely in her twenties. It took a large toll on Dante.” Perhaps it was Gabe’s personal bias, but he found that story quite compelling. While he didn’t usually pay complete attention, Gabe took diligent notes the rest of the period. When the lecture had concluded, Mrs. Stearns grabbed a sheet from her desk.
“Before we leave,” she said, “I’m going to assign your partners for our final project. As you know, each group will take one of the texts we’ve read and make a presentation on it. Along with your final, this will make up fifty percent of your grade. So here we go.” She began to read names. “Paradise Lost: Ryan and Brad.” Ryan and Brad simultaneously let out excited exclamations on opposite sides of the room. “Morte D’arthur: Jean and Kamar.” Gabe was waiting for her to inevitably read off how he’d be working with Dan like usual when she read, “Inferno: Riley and Gabe.”
Had he heard that right?
Riley’s head whipped back to look at Gabe, confirming he heard correctly. Mrs. Stearns read rest of the names and finished as the bell rang. Everyone started to collect their things. Gabe was doing his best to repress the desire to say something to Dan when Riley walked up to them.
“Hey,” Gabe said as she approached. “I guess we’re partners.”
“I guess so,” she said back. “I want to get working early on the project.”
“For sure,” Gabe said. “Me too.” She raised an eyebrow, a look that said she didn’t think that was true at all.
“We can start tonight then,” she said.
“Tonight?” Gabe asked. “Yeah, tonight is good.” He went silent for a moment. “Would you want to maybe, I don’t know, grab something to eat?” While Gabe didn’t turn to look at Dan, he knew his friend was likely suppressing a grin. “Or we could just get some—”
“We can meet at the library,” she said. “I’ll be in one of the upstairs study rooms at six. I want to have a topic and outline by the end of the night.” Gabe usually balked whenever Dan proposed similar strict timelines.
But this wasn’t a usual assignment.
“I’ll see you at six,” Gabe replied. Riley reminded him not to be late and left. The room had cleared out except for Gabe, Dan, and Mrs. Stearns.
“I thought it would be good to separate you two for once,” Mrs. Stearns said. “But I’m worried I may have done something much worse.” Dan said that she had. Gabe gave an embarrassed smile. “This might be your only shot with her,” she went on. “Make it count.”
* * *
Gabe and Dan naturally talked about his upcoming evening for the rest of the day, an appointment that Dan continued to refer to as a date. “It’s not a date,” Gabe texted him as he walked into the library that night. While he’d done his best to downplay it, Gabe did feel a good deal of anxiety when deciding if cologne was appropriate; he’d compromised with a few extra swipes of deodorant.
It’s not a date, he told himself as he got to the study rooms. Riley sat in the one closest to him. Her back faced the wall and she stared at her laptop on the table in front of her. She glanced up, said hi, then looked back to her screen.
Definitely not a date, he thought. Gabe pulled out his own laptop. They sat across from each other in silence while he tried to think of how to start a conversation. “So,” he said, “anything good yet?”
“I’ve got some ideas,” she replied. “I’ve been researching the bindings of the various editions.”
Bindings of the editions?
“Oh yeah?” Jake said, trying not to sound completely unexcited by the idea. “Like what?”
“The binding method had some interesting variations in early editions.” The prospect of such a dull topic had a crushingly deflating effect on Gabe. “What do you think?” she asked, seeming to expect praise for her proposal. Gabe thought for a moment.
“I’ll be honest and say that’s probably the most boring thing we could do,” he said. Her mouth involuntarily opened then snapped shut.
“Really?” she asked, unmistakable offense in her voice. “And what ideas do you have instead?” Emboldened by having been asked, Gabe answered.
“I think the Beatrice thing is pretty interesting. The whole love story. We need something like that to bring the project to life.”
“He was like a creepy stalker.”
“I think he was a man in pain.” She rolled her eyes and looked back at her screen.
I don’t think you convinced her.
Gabe started Googling, hoping to find something to hook her with. They both clicked and scrolled in silence for a few minutes.
“What are the chances Dante actually went to hell?” he asked.
“Absolute zero,” she said without looking up.
“How can you be so sure?”
“It’s a poem. Dante didn’t go to hell.”
“I’m just saying. He gets into some pretty intense detail.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Gabe scrolled through a PDF of the poem. He couldn’t help but imagine Dante in hell, trapped and desperately trying to escape. There were plenty of stories about people glimpsing heaven. He remembered stories like that from Sunday school. Why couldn’t someone have seen the other side?
“What are you looking at now?” she asked.
She’s trying to keep me on task, he thought.
“Just reading the poem,” he said. A certain word from one of the poem’s lines stood out. “Raphael,” he read.
“It’s from a line in here.”
“Raphael is an archangel,” she pointed out.
“He’s also a ninja turtle who loves pizza,” Gabe replied with a smile. She didn’t smile back.
“Just don’t end up on Wikipedia,” she said.
“I love Wikipedia.”
“It isn’t credible.”
“That’s a bit naive,” Gabe replied.
“I’m just trying to be practical.”
“You know,” Gabe said and leaned forward. “I think that’s your problem.
“That I’m practical?” She looked up. “Maybe you’re not practical enough.”
“School isn’t everything,” he said.
“It’s more important than you think it is.” She tilted the screen of her computer down. “I know how you are, Gabe.”
“And how is that?” he asked, quite curious. She leaned forward as well and put her elbows on the table.
“You’re a clown,” she said. Gabe was sure she saw the surprise on his face. “You like making a show of yourself. Saying silly things in class to make everyone laugh. You think the attention is fun. But the whole world of high school? This bubble? It’s going to burst in about a year. What you’re doing now won’t work in the real world. Around then you might wish you’d been a bit more practical.”
Gabe felt an embarrassment that he hadn’t expected. He didn’t get embarrassed. He’d once walked on stage during a play in his underwear. So why did he feel that now? “I don’t know about real life because I’m not constantly studying?” he asked. “It makes me incapable of real thought?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“But it’s what you meant.” He glanced down at his screen then back at her. “Why do you think Dante wrote the Inferno?”
The question caught her off guard. “To warn people about hell,” she said, too quick of a response for a deep question. “To show the consequence of sin.”
She was exactly where he wanted her. “Sure,” Gabe replied. “Scared straight and all that. But think about it. The woman he loves dies when he’s young.”
“Beatrice married someone else.”
“So did Dante. But seeing death that young does something to a person. You realize that life is short. That you have to make the most of the time you have.” Anger now guided the conversation. “Does working for that nice house and a steady job matter once you’re dead? Is that really living? Maybe the Inferno’s not just about hell. Maybe it’s about what happens when you spend your life on things that don’t really matter in the end.” He stopped. “But what do I know? I’m a clown. Maybe it’s just about a guy who went to hell.” He sighed in frustration and went back to searching. He felt stupid to have been excited about getting into this situation. Stupid to have felt this way about her.
And how did he feel about her?
He didn’t have the answer. He hadn’t found it by the time Riley spoke up again several minutes later. “I looked up that line you mentioned,” she said. “The Raphael thing. I didn’t think Raphael was in the poem,” she said. “And I was right. He’s not.”
“I know I read it.”
“You did. You just read a different translation. Let me show you.” She walked around the table to lean over him. Several strands of her hair brushed against his shoulder; Gabe tried to act like he didn’t notice that or the pleasant scent it had. The search bar predicted what she was typing:
Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi
“How do you even say it?” Gabe asked. They read it in unison. Riley opened an article. “It says the line is a mixture of several different languages,” Gabe said as he read the page.
“And no one really knows what it means,” Riley added. She stepped back, lowering her hands to rest on her hips. “Pretty interesting, huh?” she asked.
“More interesting than paper quality?” Gabe asked.
“Only slightly,” she replied. He thought she might say something else. It felt like the moment where she might apologize. “I have to use the bathroom real quick,” she said. “Don’t go anywhere though.” She pulled on the door; it didn’t open. She tried again.
“Need help?” Gabe asked. She stepped aside for him to try, but he couldn’t open it either. Gabe felt a breeze along his neck. He looked up to see if there was an air vent above him: nothing. In his peripheral vision, he saw it on his computer.
A black circle had appeared in the center of the screen. It was small, no larger than a quarter. Gabe thought it was dead pixels on his screen. Then it started to expand. It doubled in size within seconds, continuing to stretch across the screen.
“What’s wrong with your computer?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know,” Gabe said. That color wasn’t on his screen though; it hung in the air in front of it. The consistency was like smoke, but it also looked solid, a pitch black substance that soon reached the corners of the screen. A loose tendril whisped from the growing mass and onto the keyboard.
What the hell?
The wind picked up. More of that darkness seemed to pour from the screen. It consumed the entire keyboard in seconds and began to spread. The table seemed to be sinking into the floor. There was soon nothing but flat ground covered by darkness in the center of the room. The substance didn’t stop there though, now reaching for the corners of the room.
Gabe inched away. Riley did the same. The flat walls made climbing to avoid it impossible. A gust of wind pushed them back. They had only a foot of ground between them and whatever was reaching for them. To Gabe’s surprise, Riley grabbed his hand. He instinctively squeezed it and pulled her closer. The darkness wrapped itself around their feet.
Was he still standing next to her? He couldn’t be sure. He didn’t feel solid ground under his feet anymore. He wasn’t floating though. There was no sound or sensation. No light. His eyes weren’t opened. They weren’t closed. It felt like he was in between places. He was in a state of non-existence.
He heard faint cries of anguish that grew louder. Men crawled through mud, rain falling in sheets while a monstrous worm watched. Others flailed their limbs in tumultuous waters where they drowned for all eternity. Tongues of fire rose from tombs with people writhing inside.
Those visions disappeared all at once.
They were back in that room. Wind no longer whipped through it. The table in the center of the room was gone. In its place stood a man. A crimson robe covered his thin frame. He hunched slightly, his long face and pointed nose facing down. When he looked up at them, they saw the fullness of the dark beard that matched his curly hair, both flecked with grey. Large eyes, both sad and warm, peered at them.
“Who are you?” Gabe asked.
The man glanced between the two of them, his eyes somehow growing even wider. He drew himself up. “My name,” he said, crossing the short distance to stand in front of them, “is Durante degil Alighieri.” He paused and then added, “But you may call me Dante.”
“Dante?” Riley asked in disbelief. “As in the Dante?”
“I know of no other,” he replied. “And you are?”
Gabe gave Riley a cautious look that asked what she thought they should do. Now it was her who stared in silence. “I’m Gabe.” He pointed to Riley. “The quiet one is Riley.” Dante nodded to her.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Riley and Gabe,” Dante said. He pulled back a tattered sleeve and reached his hand towards them. There was a large gold ring on his middle finger. A black circular jewel sat in its center; it made Gabe think of that circle he’d seen on his computer.
“You can’t be Dante,” Riley said.
“And yet I am,” Dante said as Gabe shook his hand.
“It’s not possible,” Riley insisted.
“It’s not possible for giant black portal things to grow out of my computer either,” Gabe pointed out. Dante turned his head towards him.
“A black portal?” Dante asked.
“Yeah,” Gabe said. “We were reading the Inferno and then—” Those visions flashed through his mind. “Then you were here,” he decided to say.
“What part did you read?” Dante asked, a desperate edge in his voice. “Which line?”
“It was right before the ninth circle,” Riley replied. “It was a mix of languages.” A small grin spread across Dante’s face.
“You found it,” Dante said. “I knew someone would.” He paused. “I expect some time has passed since 1321.”
Gabe smiled and shook his head in disbelief. “A couple years after that,” he replied and added, “2018.” Instead of the shock Gabe expected, Dante simply nodded.
“I thought as much,” Dante said. “Your dress, the device on your wrist.” He pointed to the watch Gabe wore.
“I’m sure you have many questions. I don’t know exactly where to begin. But I suppose I’ll start at the beginning. I’ll start with Beatrice.”
Many of the things Dante told them aligned with what they’d read about his life. As a young boy living in Florence, he’d seen a girl named Beatrice. He said he fell in love the moment he saw her.
“She was never far from my mind,” he said. “My admiration was from a distance though. I had dreams of going on adventures, of quests and seeing the world. Beatrice thought she could find all those things in her books. How could she ever consider a foolish young boy like me?”
“Did you tell her how you felt” Gabe asked, hoping to satisfy his own personal curiosity.
“I did. But it was years later. And far too late.”
Dante told of how she married another man. The pain of that, mingled with crippling regret, led Dante to marry as well. But it was never happy. Sickness soon struck Beatrice, reducing her to a skeleton wearing a mask of the woman he knew.
“As her eyes began to glaze over,” Dante said, “she told me how she wished we had more time together. Then she died. Simply knowing her radiant light had gone out was enough grief for the world entire.” While he was a man of faith, Dante couldn’t help but question her death. “Would she be waiting on the other side? Was she at peace? To be with her again for just a moment would be enough to make it through the rest of my days. It was all I needed. I was told that to seek such things was blasphemy. The church rebuked me. They told me to simply trust in God. But I could not rest.”
Dante threw himself into study, seeking out methods of peering into the afterlife. He started with the story from the Bible where King Saul sought to commune with the dead. Gabe knew it from Sunday school: in desperation, Israel’s first king had used a witch to summon the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, a man who had guided Saul in life. Gabe only remembered the story because the witch had been from Endor, also the name of a planet prominently featured in Return of the Jedi. Catching that was enough to impress Dante. From the expression she wore, it seemed to be enough to impress Riley as well.
“As I investigated Saul,” Dante continued, “I encountered tales of an artifact. It was said that King Solomon had a ring which could bind dark spirits and command them. He allegedly used it to force demons and jinn to aid in constructing the great temple.”
“Jinn?” Gabe asked, wanting to make sure he was following along with the story.
“A genie,” Riley said. “That’s another name for them.”
“Yes,” Dante said. “A particularly powerful spirit. If legends were true, then perhaps I could harness their power for good. I heard how holy quests had resulted in the transfer of relics to Florence. In an effort to find that ring, I began work for the city council. For months it was fruitless until I found a scroll describing how to use the ring. But without the ring itself, it was useless. I spent most my life following clues, trying to discover the truth buried in myths. Decades later, I succeeded.”
Dante held up his hand and displayed the ring Gabe had seen earlier. It was only now that he noticed the six pointed star etched in the black stone.
“I used it to bring forth a jinn. I told him that I wished to be with Beatrice. For the briefest of moments, I was. Then I was overwhelmed by visions of tormented souls. To my horror, I saw Beatrice among them. My soul returned to my body, but my actions were soon discovered. I was stripped of that ring and exiled, sent away to die alone. I tried to convince myself that I had imagined those visions, but I continued to see them in my dreams. I saw them, I saw Beatrice, every night. It was hell. As I wrote about what I’d seen, I heard the voice of the poet Virgil. And I realized the truth: I had done something terrible to Beatrice’s soul. The jinn had deceived me. To make things right, I would have to descend into that dark realm myself.”
“You needed the ring back though,” Riley said.
“Before I set off to reclaim it, I left an incantation in my Inferno that could call me back. It was my intent to return before the poem had been seen by the masses, but if I did not, I would likely need help. I wrote the incantation in a variety of languages to find the most equipped souls to aid me in my quest. My connection to Beatrice caused me to do a terrible thing, but it was the secret to using that spell. The love you two have for one another must be strong to have succeeded.”
“We are not in love,” Riley said. “That can’t be right.”
“Perhaps it is love that has yet to blossom,” Dante proposed. “Love that is fated to be.”
Gabe wondered if Riley was going to address that statement. “So you reopened that gateway and then what?” she asked, changing the topic. Gabe was relieved.
“I’ve been wandering through the darkness ever since,” Dante said.
“And Beatrice?” Gabe asked.
“I have yet to find her. And so I must return to that place.”
“You’re going back to hell?” Riley asked.
“I have no choice,” Dante said. “I must right this terrible wrong.” He hesitated and then added, “And I request that you accompany me.”
“No way,” Riley said. “I’m not going to hell.”
“There is something about you two,” Dante said. “You hold great power to have opened the gateway. I could enter hell, but I could not conjure an exit. You opened the gateway on your own. It’s been closed for almost seven hundred years. I suspect you two are instrumental in my quest succeeding.”
Somehow, Gabe knew the prospect of going to hell was real. If half the things Dante had written were true, that idea terrified him. It was then that he remembered something else from Sunday school. Somewhere in the Bible, it said how love doesn’t deny fear. Fear exists whether someone wants it to or not. But love can do something else: it can drive fear out.
Gabe glanced at Riley. “We’ve gotta go,” he said.
“Are you kidding me?” Riley asked. “That’s insane!”
“He needs us,” Gabe said. “Remember what I said about the Inferno? About not wasting your time?”
“I thought you were trying to say I should relax a little more!” she exclaimed. “Like go see movies and stuff.”
“This is someone’s soul we’re talking about. It’s real life. It’s more pressing than a project. It means more than getting attention from the class.” Gabe put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s a lot to take in. But you and I both know this is for real. This could be the most important thing we do in our lives.” He could tell she was thinking over his words.
“This is crazy,” she said back, shaking her head.
“I mean, it’s a little crazy cool,” Gabe said with a smile. “So you’re in?”
“This is crazy,” she said again. Gabe took that as the closest thing he was going to get to a yes.
“We must say the incantation together,” Dante told them. “Do you remember it?” Riley glanced at Gabe with uncertainty.
“If you don’t remember it,” Gabe said to her, “ I don’t have a shot.”
“Can you write it down?” Riley asked Dante. She grabbed the dry erase marker from the metal tray sitting just under the whiteboard attached to the wall.
“Of course,” Dante said. She handed him the marker. He regarded it curiously for a moment. “Expo,” he said slowly. “These are what you write with? And you just write upon the walls?” Dante asked. Gabe laughed. Riley took the marker and uncapped it.
“Just write it,” she said. Dante wrote the words on the board and stepped back. He stuck his hands out. They each took one. While Dante closed his eyes to recite the spell, the two of them glanced at the board and read.
Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi
Dante let go of their hands and raised the ring to his mouth. He pressed it to his lips. “Jinn,” he whispered, “I ask that you ferry the souls in this room to the Inferno.”
Wind whipped through the room. Black tendrils spread from the ring, reaching out and wrapping around them. A surge of terror shot through Gabe. He looked to Riley and saw traces of fear in her face. But there was something else. He turned to Dante and saw the same thing. It was a determination. A conviction in their quest. A commitment to a holy task. Gabe gritted his teeth and embraced that thought as the darkness swallowed them up, three souls descending into the Inferno.