Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Dante: A Girl's Guide to the Divine Comedy
by Shelley Berc


Ghostwriting the Inferno
The day was now departing. The dark air released the beings of earth from their labors and I alone stood awake and made ready for the journey. O memory that suffered it all, help me set down what it is that I heard and saw.

Canto  I, Inferno
      The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
      My name is dante.
      I don't know how to tell this story. Each time I try, the story eats itself. Mad tail. Its own impulses run it dry. This happened which led to that happening and then all the words are in my stomach, swimming an alphabet soup. It was in my fortieth year, I was running to catch my train - I don't know how to tell this story but I will try to say what happened to me when I went down into the earth, below my apartment, below the streets, under the rock and soil that held up the city I lived in to that other city at the core of it all, the desperate heart of the city of love.
      Grass growing verdant in the junkyard, my heart at the nested gate, between the outsheds of broken railroad cars and the heaps of ransacked refrigerators, their doors open and mercilessly swinging.
      I was going down into the subway on my way to work. The smell of human piss was embedded in each step. There was graffiti all over the walls and it made a shadow copy all over my face. I could see the people in the station, but they couldn't see me. I was invisible. Their shapes were blurry but mine was a straight comb and I cut right through them. I swept through the turnstile for free and the piss went with me.
      There I was in the place dug out for trains. Their arrival always precluded by a hot wind, a siren, a ghostly flickering light. The light hit the curved wall of the tracks which only made it more ugly; that is  "come alive" with its garbage and rats.
      I thought about you while I waited in my darkness, the only place you can live, fetid under my feet, in the air I breathe down here--the air of the damned--thick and poisonous. but most of all unseen. How I missed the real of your body--not just the flesh-touch of it but the sight of its movement---it was like a great span of wing lifting off in the horizon; it was an eye-lid shudder that only someone who really watched minutely could see.
      I will never be able to tell how much I miss that which does not live of you. Instead I stood there shivering as I waited for the train to take me to work. That was the day I never got there.
      I remember I went in the subway car. The one I always take but it was going way too fast and I figured I had got on the express by mistake. There wasn't a soul on the train,this was strange because it was rush hour. Just me and the orange plastic seats. I sighed with relief when I heard the conductor clear his throat over the load speaker system. I thought at last I would be told what direction I was headed and could aright myself at the next stop. Then with horror it struck me that the voice I was hearing was me and it was screaming over the microphone in a harsh and bellicose manner:
      -My name is dante.  I'm a girlghostwriter and I'm here to write the stories of the dead, in their own words, the vulgar tongue.
      I looked in the mirror that is in every car so you can see what lies ahead and behind you but there was no sight of myself, no breath there. I saw only this in the silvery fog: that I was a ghost writer in the world of the dead, doomed to write in disappearing ink. And it was, most surely, Hell.
       But in the mirror in which she was invisible, dante the girlghostwriter could see her first boyfriend ever, her heart and soul of love before it got all screwed up.
      -He was beautiful young. He wore a crimson dress.
      He looked at her with such pity and caressed himself so deliciously that the girl felt lost in his motions. And as he brushed his hairless breast he said knowingly:
      -Love brought you here. Love left you here. Love put these words in your mouth, these dead stars in your eyes. Love, do you remember me?
      "Yes," dante the girl  said softly to the boy in the mirror who refused to show her face. "I do remember you. Beatrice. Beautiful. Young. You wore a crimson dress.  You never noticed  me. I loved you. You're dead."
      "And so are you, dante," answered the boy, giggling a little.
      "At least as dead as you can be, given your emotions which never ran too deep."
      "But if I am dead," asked the girl, "then what is all this before me?" she motioned to the orange subway seats and the fake grass floor and the advertisements all over the train ceiling. "Where oh where am I?"
      -Why dante, where would a girl like you like to be?
      -Er-Hell? She ventured.
      At that very moment, dear Reader, the whole world of hell in all its delights opened up before me.

And dante the girlghostwriter lying down beneath the clear sky of advertisements for plastic surgeons, immigration lawyers, and employment agencies began the rote of her familiar tale:
      "Midway through my life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood for the straight way was lost to me. I cannot really say how I entered the wood, I was very tired when I gave up the  path. But when I reached the bottom of the hill, there at the end of the valley that had caused me so much pain, I looked up and saw the sun."
      -He was there obscuring the sun, lying on the grass painting his nails and smiling at each one as it sucked in the red polish. He didn't look up but he spoke to me as if I were reflected in those sweet moons that crested each finger nail-Beatrice
       Whom the girl loved all her life, who never knew she existed, who died not caring she existed. Leaving dante to a long, miserable, and lonely life. An exile from life. This made her a natural chronicler of  hell.
      -invisible. see-through. transparent to the one I love,
       thrown out of my country, exiled in absentia, on pain of death.
      Never to go home again, never to live anywhere again.  Not even as a memory.
      "Grief, you know," confided the girlghostwriter to anything that would listen, "grief  is a map you can chart your heart and soul on. Here is where he never looked at me, here is where he kissed another, here is where he died without my name on his lips--Beatrice."
      "My friend who is not the friend of fortune," whispered Beatrice, his arms (which had just begun to sweetly muscle) tenderly entwined around the girlghostwriter's waist, "has been eaten up by fear. But Love sent Reson-Virgil the worm, the mouth of reason, to eat her holy heart out--to teach the girl how she might live without love, that is--how she might live dead."
      He was a giant worm, his body an iridescent bronze slither but he walked upright like a man and he took the girl dante by the hand. The sky turned black and the stars came out and glittered like broken glass as they went forth. The first thing she noticed as she looked imploringly up at his face was that he had no eyes. He spoke to the girl with a voice that nestled in her heart, a voice that reminded her of love before it was pain.
      -If you want to get past the beasts that prey, you had better go another way. Follow me, dante. Let me be your eyes in the dirt; let me eat a hole through your heart that will become your new eyes and with it you will see hell, purgatory and paradise.
      In the muscular coils of his dark body the giant worm held what the girl dante perceived was a subway map of hell.
      "Express or local?" she asked of her guide.
      "Local," he replied, "its more scenic."
      So the girl dante the ghost writer followed the giant worm, the mouth of reason, into a hole in the ground. And thus it was that they descended into the blind world.
      -Twas a gray, filthy place where one stumbled in the dingy light, the concrete floor a sea of cigarette butts, the iron tracks squirming with rats, and  the broken down vehicles that whistled through its hellish tunnel covered with indecipherable graffiti. To the girl it looked just like the beat up subway in her city  but the stops on the station map were different, very different.
      The girl dante walked through the valley of death with her heaven-sent guide, Virgil the worm, the mouth of reason whose mission it was on pain of love to eat her holy heart out. And while she was walking here and now, she could see herself sitting hunched over 'back then' in the Middle Ages--a middle-aged monk man  illuminating a divine comedy of humanity. Look! Said Virgil to his charge--Now he is scripting the letter E.
      Then the  monk scribe of the Middle Ages looked knowingly at the girlghostwriter and pointed to his illuminated circles, where a gold-leafed version of herself lives in passionless vellum. The girl dante points to herself, the scribe; her tears bleed over the elaborated page and the letter where she is trapped comes alive.
      -E can only mean one thing said the girl as she held her magnifying glass up to the gorgeous letter- Exile
      "Ah, exile," continued Virgil nostalgically. "To be cut off from country or home by free choice or force. To be absent from country or home by free choice or force. To be separated from the realm of human intercourse, to be made alien from love, honor, contact of the most tenuous sort with the familiar, the known, the trusted, the believed or the beloved by free will or force. To be unable to return to country or home or love. To be unable to ever know again what country or home or love means."
      Sure... obviously, replied the girl who was not a little irritated, Why would such as me even be on this trip if I had anywhere else to go?  My home is this elaborated letter--E--for exile. I sleep in its shade, raid its garbage cans at night. I eat my pride and I know I'm supposed to feel better.
       So the girl dante tried not to think of home. The thought of home made her sick--home/sick.
      -But sometimes home thinks of me. It asks me: Where have you been? Why don't you write or call? Where are you going? And for how long?
      The girl dante pointed to the illumination of the scribe who is herself, who is in fact the very home that is sick of her and she cried. Her tears bleed over the elaborated pages of the circles of hell and they come alive.
      "Let me show you  my circles," said the scribe who was wandering in the painted words to the girl  who was wandering in nowhere. "A circle is perfect--a space with no way in and no way out. You just  go round and round and round."
      The girl dante who was drifting in nowhere because she's in exile and thinks she's dead, wanted to go to the Middle Ages.  She was sure that she was this wandering scribe, this  middle aged monk-man  in a world  of miracles, in which the miraculous is more real than the real. She was headed back there when she got lost and became a road kill on the  map of love.
      And now, the girl dante stepped into the Middle Ages: "It's like an ocean-she marveled, the way you test it first, step by step, until the only thing left is to freeze or jump in." As she entered the illumination of the  scribe she thinks she  is, she saw that  he was painting the circles of hell and that they were named, just like the destinations on her subway map--the Circle of Gluttony, the Ring of Treachery, the Terrace of Cowardly  Fear. These circles catalogued every bad doing, every horrid thought, every evil coincidence known to man. The girl dante is sure that here she will find love.
      I thought about you in the darkness. I could smell your forearms where the muscle clenched to grab me and hold on until I was too confused for anything but the belief of your love.
      "Wait a minute," she screamed, digging out her flashlight. "Time to get our bearings. The way I see it, I'm  still in a dark wood. My guide Virgil the worm, the mouth of reason  is beside me. We're reading our map to hell so we can figure out which way to go....Now, if the main objective in visiting hell is to get out of it and thereby escape the  exile that brought you to it, this  means taking the road that leads to home which is, as everyone knows, where the heart is, which is being eaten away so that one can survive the journey through. Where then, if the heart is gone, does the traveler end up?"
      Before she had time to consider this question however, she saw in the dark tunnel that was her new home a neon sign that blinked and grinningly announced: The Tourist Attractions Of The Circles Of Hell.
      The Tourist Attractions Of The Circles Of Hell
      misers and profligates
      the angry and the sullen
      the violent against others
      the violent against themselves
      the violent against God and Nature
      money lenders
      sowers of discord
      evil impersonators
      false witnesses
      It could take a lifetime to see it all, said Virgil, most excited to be in this fascinating place.
       But the girl dante, frozen stiff by anguished memory, wept:
      There was a girl I knew  once. She was beautiful, young. She wore a crimson dress...I loved her. She's dead.

Looking back, it was the moment, dear Reader, that I fell from any grace of  myself. I knew then that this place I had come down to below the streets of my city would never let me go. That whether I stayed or left, it would pound in my blood and draw pictures before my eyes without respite. That I belonged to it and lived on  its stories as surely as those in the world above live on air. That its ghost stories were indeed my breath, their journeys were my very air, their haunted characters my lungs. That I needed this place of Hell to live at all since I was, I now understood,  a creature of the dead, both here and there,  both dead and alive if I was to live anymore at all. I remember wavering on that precipice for an overly long time, wondering how I should proceed, if I should turn back, stay where I was or alas, go forward. But my mind was made up for me.
      Come on, said her guide the worm mouth of reason, giving her a firm push,. You can't stay in Limbo forever.
      Time to sink or swim added the boy Beatrice brightly. And with that, they began the Crossing Of The River Acheron To Hell's Gate.

Crossing Of The River Acheron To Hell's Gate

The sound of black, bottomless water was everywhere upon us and the gasping rant of emphysymic breathing was  so loud in this heavenless sky that it made speech impossible while we heard the bellow of "Welcome home, damned souls" as the red eyed glower of the boatman Charon drew his victims  aboard. We followed the thousands traveling over the dark waters. Even before we had reached the other shore, new hordes stood ready on the bank to make the regrettable journey in which their own obsessions  urge them on, turning their fear into desire--the desire to go to hell.
        So it was that the worm, the girl, and the boy crossed into the land of Hell. Here sighs and screams, cries and lamentations resonated against the starless sky. "Here," said the girl's sage guide, "you must leave behind all fear, all hesitation, or else the pilgrim will not survive."
      Then a wind cracked through the tear-drenched earth, a wind that rose with a blood-red light, a light that overwhelmed all the girlghostwriter's  senses, and she fell like a man struck dead.
       When the girl dante awoke, the subway stop which appeared above her said 'Lust' and seemed to be written in blood and the doors stayed open until reluctantly she ventured out into this land. There she saw in a dark clearing, a man and a woman tightly entwined and glued to a television set upon which they were watching a soap opera in Italian, a language the girl dante could not understand. She could hear the sounds of deep kisses and  the magnified filmic sighs of close up lovers, but the girl couldn't tell if the sounds  were coming from the television or the two people watching it. Suddenly the lovers in the soap opera stepped out of the television set and began to chase each other. A bitter wind blew and the girl dante could hardly keep herself on the ground. She heard them screaming to each other as they raced  in a circle of unstoppable frenzy, trying to touch, trying not to touch, trying to escape, chasing and never catching each other, over and over in the endless wind. She heard them howling at each other:
      --Why are we in hell for loving?
      --What kind of loving is hell?
      --How can loving be hell?
      --Why won't the wind stop?
      --Why when I touch you am I not touching you?
      --Where has the earth gone?
      --Where has comfort gone?
      --Why won't the wind stop?
      Over and over they chased one another and screamed these words until suddenly they climbed back into the television set and the female of the couple began to speak:
      --Once there were these two people-me and my brother in law actually-we had a lot of time alone since my husband, the King, was usually out making war. It was really innocent the way it all happened. We were reading a book together-- the romance of Guinevere and Lancelot. Our  hands touched as we traced the words with our fingers so as not to lose our place-
       And the man in the set grabbed her and continued:
      --Our hands touched and suddenly our lips and after that all our reading was each other's bodies and we couldn't stop even when we heard him coming-we couldn't stop even when we felt his sword pierce one and then the other's heart-.
      "They couldn't stop," laughed Beatrice, who turned off the TV and watched with satisfaction as the lovers vanished into the blankness. "They couldn't stop even when their hearts were skewered together like a shish kabob. Ah, Love that can suddenly seize the tender  heart. Love that releases no loved one from loving. Love that led these two to one death. Love, the hurricane of Hell."
      "This hurricane of hell never stops," interjected Virgil the worm, the mouth of reason, as he pulled out from the folds of his voluptuous body  a meteorological map in the shape of a frayed heart. He pointed to its ripped up ventricles.
      -Look--The wind whips them here, whips them there. There's no hope of rest nor respite from suffering.-This is the long range forecast-it is not subject to change.
       But the girl ghost writer protested:
      -I have some real problems with the moral of this story I'm driven to ghost write, she complained. Why it doesn't seem like hell at all, the way I see it--obsessive love is the greatest love-My dead Beatrice whom I never even kissed, the girl at the altar in the crimson dress, with the cold lips, who never raised his eyes in greeting, who never said "Hello, how are you, today?" And I feel-I feel jealous of Paolo and Francesca, those two  souls lost in the perpetual hunger of their love.
        "dante the girl is weeping," announced Beatrice, clucking her tongue, "from Virgil the worm, the mouth of reason, who is eating her heart out with reason so called. Objectivity is  an algebraic thing--symbols of abstraction when unapplied to the living reality. But she wants...the heart wants...."
      "Listen to me, dante girl," urged the worm. "Follow how I see. Then you'll stop crying."
      And with that he spit a black stream of bile upon the lovers. And the girl dante broke into uncontrollable tears . But she couldn't help thinking: "Why am I crying when I want to be spitting?"
      And Beatrice, that body and soul of love, came up behind her, his member hard against her back and he blew on the nape of her neck, whispering: "Remember a girl you knew  once. She wore a crimson dress. You loved her-"
      The girl dante pushed this apparition away and yelled at the top of her lungs: "She's dead!"
      "Can you fuck the love out of a body?" wondered the girlghostwriter trying to touch her see-through self. "Can you love so hard that the atoms of flesh break down and you disappear into each other in such minute particles that you are neither girl nor boy but both? Can you fuck yourself out of love and into another universe as if you had passed through a black hole?" And there on the other side, the girl thought hopefully, you could be  a hermaphrodite of feeling--both love and hate.
       "From lust we descend to gluttony," her guide intervened, dragging her down from the leaning tower of her self absorption. "Its a natural progression from the place where you can never get enough  to the circle where you're stuffed."
      They saw before them hordes of monstrous creatures dining on human hearts, tossing them up in the air like flapjacks. In the middle of this party sat the three-headed dog Cereberus, his three throats growling, his three maws foaming, his fat eyes red as blood, his enormous belly bulging as he tears  the hearts up, one by one.
      I love to eat, he yelled ecstatically, I love to eat, I love to eat, love to chew, consume bite grind inhale slurp masticate tear gulp devour.
      And the girl dante too began to stuff her mouth with hearts.
      . "Now dante," Beatrice admonished as she tore half an aorta from her loved one's orifice-"you know for us girls it is a sin to eat. That the holier the girl the more starving. Abstinence will help you write the cautionary tale of the gluttonous, in the glory of your famished anonymity-"The Horror Story of the Hungry Heart."
      But the girl dante could barely hear her love as the beast with the three mouths was devouring her along with everything else he could grab onto and  all that was filling her ears was his phlegm-filled voice growling: more more more more more more more.
      "Sometimes I know I do not exist," admitted the girl dante as she began to disappear into the maw of Gluttony. "That I am a ghost and that these dead souls are the living. That's why everyone thinks I'm some Italian guy from the Middle Ages. I have made myself into an Italian guy from the Middle Ages and I have made everybody believe it so I won't exist because if I do exist with my loud mouth that is not the mouth of the worm Virgil, the voice of reason, it is clear that one of those guys  will kill me which I do not want--because I know  how you can be tortured to death by  the dead.  I'd rather be dead to begin with."
       "Oh, be reasonable," pronounced her guide as he dragged her out of the mouth of gluttony.
       "Look, dante," he told her sharply-"Forget all this philosophizing. Just concentrate on this: Figuring out how to escape is the key down here. Escape from every home, each love, all promises. Escape is the challenge of the consumer in the infernal shopping mall. To emerge a hero is to return home empty handed. It's true--no matter what they say or what the sales, do not buy any of it."
      And what prescient advice it was for they had arrived in the vicious circle of Waste And Avarice.
          Waste And Avarice
      *Crowds pressed on  every side of them. With their chests they pushed the giant grinding wheels and slammed against each other, screaming "Why do you waste? Why do you save?"*
      "For all eternity they'll come to blows," said the guide with a great yawn as he stretched his neck out to point at the doomed, "those with their fists clenched tight, those squandering their silver and gold....excess had robbed them both of this sweet world." Virgil told all this to his trembling charge over the thunderous clashing of  the hellish wheels of commerce,
       "My name is  dante," the girl screamed out. "I'm telling you this again because while I know that my words are disappearing ink, I think maybe my voice is disappearing, too. That you will forget who I am or never know who I am or think I'm really someone other  than I am while I keep fading away. The wasteful and the avaricious, tied together forever here, have hired me to ghost write their stories. But they criticize my style, my ideas; they tell me I am writing in a dead language that no one ever reads. Well, what the hell do they expect?"
       "dante girl," chided Virgil, "listen and you shall understand." And he guided her over to two souls rapt in earnest conversation.
      -What shall we do today?
      -Shall we go to Bergdorfs, shall we go to Bloomingdales? I know you don't like Sax.
      -Don't waste your dime on that beggar in the street--if you put your money in his hand you'll get a life-threatening disease.  He should know it's better to give than to receive.
      And with that the two souls joined hands and entered the Mall.
      Meanwhile, another soul spoke earnestly of his dreams:
      --A vintage Jaguar convertible with red leather seats, a diamond ankle bracelet, my own private island in Fiji, A Louis Vitton carrying case for my cat, dinner reservations forever at the restaurant at the top of the Tour Eiffel. Consuming makes me a fully participatory member of the global community. Soul for sale? You bet! he cried out while the rest of the souls of this circle cheered and applauded.
      But all the girl dante could think about was a catalog of unmentionable sins which she muttered as she twirled round the circle herein: states of sin which seemed to her frail mind to be growing:
        the sin of poverty
        the sin of homelessness
        the sin of needing help
        the sin of asking for it
        the sin of helplessness
        the sin of not having it all
        the sin of wanting too little
        the sin of being too old
        the sin of being a liberal
        the sin of not being tough enough
        the sin of idealism
        the sin of loving too much.

"We think about love a lot, here in hell," said Beatrice-"love of the body, love of the mind, love of money love of poverty love of greed love of love. We think about these things all the time. love love love. We watch the creatures suffer in their love, too much, too little, wrong headed, dizzy,  perverse. We would sympathize with them if we had any heart left with which  to feel-"
      "But we do not my dear," interrupted the worm mouth of reason.  "We have ascended to tough love."
       And as her two friends spoke and conspired, dante the girlghostwriter  announced triumphantly:
      I knew a girl once, I loved her, she barely noticed me, the little shit. I'm glad she's dead.
      Then the girl sighed deeply and added: But how horrible it is not to exist for the one you live for.
       Virgil grabbed her by the waist and shouted: Eat your heart out, baby! Yeah! Eat your heart out. Eat your heart out!
      And so it was that the girl and the worm fell to the ground of hell and rolling over and over he  fucked her dry while hissing in her ear: eat your heart out baby eat your heart out baby eat your eat your eat your. Yes, yes, yes the girl ghostwriter screamed as her  heart shrank to the size of a nut in the final waves of her desire. When the girl awoke from her torpor, there appeared before her the City of Dis, a metropolis of burnt and broken dreams, of walls shattered, of illuminations erased, of urban beauties mutilated, it existed as a negative of a city--elaborate and bombed out; ultra modern and medieval, real yet impossible to reach.

How I wanted to run back to my old city now where I simply took a train and went to a job where no one noticed me unless I made a mistake. Where no one cared if I lived or died where no one needed me to be their taleteller. I yearned for my city's rush of people, running into each other, each one on his way to somewhere else, each one wanting the particle of space that someone else was inhabiting, each one thinking only of the world that is himself. I wanted that city back, the one where love was so far gone it would never haunt you. The city where love lived forgotten and buried and so it doesn't hurt anymore. But I couldn't find my way back there now. And since I feared to stay where I was, I went forward into Dis.

So it was that they arrived inside the deep cut trenches that are the moats of this despondent land. And the girl dante found  herself teetering upon the verge of an abyss, a melancholy valley of unending tears.
       At this point in their journey, she and the worm of reason Virgil were sick to death of hell. Every sinner wanted to confess  his or her story like it's for the cover of People magazine. The circles of wrath, vengeance, usury, treachery--all their inhabitants had one thing in common--they want to tell all.
      Ugolino, a father who ate his kids, insisted dante put in all the grisly details.  "I did a real bad thing, I know," he confessed earnestly-but I'm a new man after this experience. I used to care only about my career. Now I'm a devoted family man. My story will vindicate me, if you write it right."
       "Poor dante," moaned Beatrice, who had suddenly reappeared lounging on one of the parapets, his long hair brushed to a glistening glower. "No one in hell is as much in hell as this girl who's supposed to tell everybody else's story while she, herself, is doomed to invisibility. No one in hell is as much in hell as the girl dante whose heart is scheduled to disappear, bit by bit as the worm of reason feeds."
       What do the invisible smell like? I can tell you now. They stink of unfulfilled desire-of want that has never come to fruition. Of change that is fiercer than anything want could give in to. Of so much hunger that the juices there to break it down burn the empty mouth.


"Beatrice," dante confessed, running to her adolescent love, "there are times I just can't take it anymore--the foreordained anonymity of the ghost writing life. There are times when I lose the will to transcribe--to speak the questions, to record the answers of the damned. At such times my mouth is  wide open but not a sound comes out--and in my breath as it hits the infernal frozen air--I see my scribe in his illumination, hunched over, all alone  and he's writing: "Murder? theft?  over-eating? incest? After awhile, what's the difference?" After awhile, in the universal equation of time and relativity, they're all the same thing."
      -Brush my hair, would you? replied Love laughing. "Look my dear, circle after circle--we're all creatures of habit," Beatrice soothed the tormented soul of her ghostwriter, "and the habits of the circles of hell can make you feel at home girl, just try it on for size."
      So dante took Beatrice's sage advice. She discovered in no time that she could indeed adapt to every evil the circles of hell hold. None of it looked so bad, foreign or boring anymore. The girl was so absorbed in watching all the evil and perversity that she couldn't see she was suddenly stuck in the mud  or that the city of Dis was impenetrable, that the way it stood-she couldn't even get over the river Styx.
      "Learn to crawl," advised the worm pushing her down, "learn to crawl. On your belly and knees and tongue learn to wriggle through hell's walls."
      And so the girl learned to swim through the mud and crawl through the rocks of hell. Sometimes she would stop to build herself a model of the City of Revelation:

I took the garbage and discarded objects I found along my path and therewith built my city. And as I made this place, I was struck by the sensation that upon every side, the steep and filthy hole trembled so that I thought the universe felt  love.

-My guide Virgil the worm mouth of reason wrapped himself around my creation, sniffing it as if to find the tasty prey within. He squeezed it slowly with his hot, strong body, and pointed somewhat breathlessly to its landscape. Look girl he said: "Here we have treachery--see how crooked, just like a medieval street. Here's the public works of grand theft and the cafes of petty larceny, the neighborhoods of fraud simple and fraud compound, the public squares of greed, the bus stops of lust. And here, the great waterway of civilized life--the boiling river of blood where every person who has done violence to another is drinking...and burning up.
      And it was so, for here we had arrived in the gigantic Circle of Violence. All around us souls with guns, knives, clubs, and bombs were screeching their vows
        to rape
        to pillage
        destroy bad mouth blow up burn scourge rip off run over gas knife break crush torture brainwash brain dead, erase. . . erase...erase.
      Virgil whispered to the girl with great satisfaction: "The violence of the tyrant is the most brutal when he makes sure that not only are his victims dead but any memory of them is erased. So completely erased, that even the most experienced ghost writer can't dig it up."
       Suddenly all around the girl, hellions were screaming at her:
       And the girl felt she could answer nothing to this. Her voice was choked in the smoke of fear and fury. She could only whisper to herself in her heart where no one would hear her:
      -The girl dante, the ghost writer, is in hell because she is an (unwilling) exile from the love of man-kind. The girl dante, the ghost, is in hell, because she is unable to operate in the community of man-kind-I even has grave sinner thoughts that such a thing as mankind doesn't exist. The worm Virgil the mouth of  hell-reason says I must prove myself now: "Prove yourself," says he, "if you prove yourself to me you'll be a hero." But nothing I prove is ever enough. Everything I ghost write  falls through the cracks--the fissures of hell that swallow all true things and say they aren't loud enough, aren't logical enough, aren't important enough, aren't famous enough, aren't enough enough. The girl dante believes in hell,  that she'll never believe in herself again-What for, if I can't prove it?
      So the girl dante, the ghost writer, tried to find her proof in the moats and ditches of violence. She's alone in the seventh circle, in the burnt out City of Dis. There are no more alphabetical bestiaries, no more allegorical demons in her way, only a mutilated forest to trip her up--an arboretum of suicides.
      And so it was that the three found themselves amidst the charred  and mutilated carcasses of trees upon which the suicides had hung themselves, and these stumps were intoning in a low, hoarse unison:
        *no green leaves in the forest, only black-
      no trees straight and smooth, only knotted and gnarled-
        no fruits here, just briars bearing poison.*
      Looking back it was here that I believed I would never again return to the world of the living, that I would never again see the colors of earth, clear blue, bright green, soft yellow. At this point in my journey I was sure that my world would forever be this dark place with  these tormented creatures who tortured me to tell their stories, to release them from the hell from which I myself by virtue of my talent as a ghostwriter would never again be able to leave. Naturally, I rescued myself from such despair with  thoughts of love. I can touch you here, Love that never was, love that was only my escape from what was, love that I needed so much, love that had no need at all for me. Love that has spent my life disappearing.

"The girl  dante thinks she can die for love," noticed Beatrice. "She's dead already, poor thing. Her worm-eaten heart, her cynical turn of mind. She's choked herself on bitterness and despair, on the words 'if only', on the dream 'what might have been', on the shards that are left of her grieving heart."
       dante took out her pocket knife and opened it up. She liked how the blade shone a fiery orange in the hellish light. She liked the shining it spat back at her; she loved it. So she took the blade to the skin of her right forearm and up and down upon it, she began to carve beauteous pictures, elaborate letters, a host of illuminations in the paint of her body that is blood. Said the girl as she cut:
      -The girl dante the ghost writer is dead in hell, double dead again. The girl dante has killed herself many many times but somehow still she isn't dead. But she's a ghost anyhow which is why she wants to be as dead as she feels.
      She carves deeper, moving slowly down to the bracelet of her delicate wrist.
      I remember a girl I knew once. She was beautiful young
      Her arm now  drenched in blood
      She wore a crimson dress-
      Her  scribe in the Middle Ages walked up and down the scriptorium of the dead, and as he walked he was thinking: This pacing is like tracing words on paper. Endless as air his shuffle, carving out the illuminations from the dust, like after-thoughts.
      Thought is the true exile as it wanders from place to place, thrown out of one brain only to roost in another, he thought as he paced his cell seven hundred years and one tiny a or the or of away from the girlghostwriter..
      dante crawled in the footsteps of the medieval scribe she saw illuminating in her memory like a broken record. But he didn't provide any relief for all he can do is draw the ins and outs of a calligraphic hell, a maze of hope and memory.
      "Look how effortlessly he walks through the blackness that make up his letters," the girl marveled-"l for love, c for charity, f for forgiveness, h humility. This is the language of hell. Because."
      She watched silently as he squeezed himself through the white fire and the black night, the true eye of the needle. She knew  it was only in that emaciated corridor that the scribe alone could read the Book of Life in Hell. "He can squeeze through on his damned words.  He can-He can," she wept. "Things fall to the floor and I feel broken. I see a tree being trimmed and it's my own limbs being amputated. My tears are eating away my body but I can't stop them. 'Hang on' is an expression I've heard too much to believe it has an end."
      "But it does have an end," dear girl, said her gentle guide, "or at least a new beginning. Look we have passed through the circle of suicides, and we rest now at the stop of The Circle Of The Violent Against God.

to be continued...


Shelley Berc is a novelist, playwright, translator and teacher of creative writing. Berc's recent novel, The Shape of Wilderness, was published by Coffee House Press The New York Times called it "a vividly imagined parable...a strange and potent book...a fantastical world of unusual sensuality and invention".

Her awards include a McKnight Writing Fellowship, Rockefeller/Bellagio Fellowship, NEA Opera/Music librettist fellowship, an Outer Critics Circle nomination for best off-Broadway play and two Lila Wallace/Readers Digest grants.

Her plays and essays on theatre have been published by Performing Arts Journal, Johns Hopkins Press, Yale Theater Magazine, The Drama Review, among other publications and presses. Her plays and adaptations have been performed at CSC Repertory in New York, Yale Repertory, The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, St. Louis Repertory, and the Odyssey Theatre. In Europe, her work has been seen at the Festival d'Avignon, Festival d'Autumn, Bieteff Festival, Edinburgh Festival and the Riverside Theatre in London.

Her course with Alejandro Fogel for writers and artists of all genres, "The Creativity Workshop: writing, drawing, and story telling as personal memoir" has been taught in Italy, Turkey, Argentina, Hungary, Australia, Singapore and the US.



Books by Shelley Berc available at Amazon.com (click on title for reviews and ordering information):

The Shape of Wilderness



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