In Dante's Footsteps: My Journey to Hell

A Modern Divine Comedy in memory of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who paved the way

Chapter 1

          It began the morning an email with "invitation" in the subject line was waiting for me on my computer. "Ready to have me as your Virgil again?" it said. "More later. Edward."

          Huh? Edward had been dead for seven years! I stared at the screen in disbelief trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Having imaginary conversations with him from time to time was one thing, but now there he was on my computer. Or was he? Was this some kind of a sick joke?

          I thought about the inscription he wrote on the flyleaf of the Commedia (Dante's Divine Comedy in Italian) he presented me with at Commencement. I hadn't looked at it in a long time, so I went to my bookshelf and read what he wrote: "Thomas, it was an honor and pleasure to be your Virgil. You were a wonderful travel companion. Dante would be proud. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. Blessings to you always, Edward."

          That's what it said all right. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. I went back to the email, clicked Return, and typed, "Is it really you?" Moments later it bounced back with a message saying the address was not valid.

          I thought of my seminary friend John as a possible culprit. He used to kid me about my church family and predicted half-jokingly that I would be the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by the time I was 40. But he knew what Edward meant to me, so I couldn't imagine him making fun of it. Still, I was curious to find out what his take on it might be, so I forwarded the email to him and wrote at the top: "John, what do you make of this? Love to Wendy and the kids. Tom."

          That night he wrote back. "Messiah! It’s great to hear from you. If anybody deserves to go to Hell, you do. Maybe your Father Edward really does want you to join him. With your Dante background, I can't think of a better candidate. Go for it, my friend. Give my regards to Satan. John."

          Three weeks after the mysterious email something much more unnerving happened. I was in bed starting to fall asleep after watching the eleven o’clock news when I saw a blurry light across the room that seemed to be moving slowly toward me. It reminded me of the ghost of Hamlet's father I had recently seen in a black and white film on late night television. I sat up for a better look as the blur got closer and came into better focus. Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Can it be? It looks like...yes, I think it is. It's Edward! I closed my eyes hard and opened them to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.

          "Thomas, it's wonderful to see you again under these unusual circumstances.”

          It was Edward's voice all right. I would know it anywhere. Was he a ghost? He certainly looked like one.

          "You're not going to believe this, but I'm here to invite you to join me in the Underworld."

          "Underworld?"

          "That's what they call it."

          I was in total shock. Seeing Edward and having him talk to me was more than I could handle. He looked and sounded like Edward, but was it really him? When I had imaginary conversations with him, I always pictured him in my mind’s eye, but this was different.

          "I can't believe it's you. I mean, I know it's you, but I can't believe you're really here because...well, because you're dead."

          Edward smiled impishly.

          "Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."

          "Mark Twain."

          "Very good, Thomas."

          The Mark Twain quote proved he really was Edward. He loved quotations. By the time I graduated I knew many of his favorites.

          "Thomas, my resurrection, so to speak, was a big surprise as you can imagine. To suddenly wake up and be conscious again. And now to be up here talking to you. I can't believe it."

          "I can't believe it either. Let me make sure I have this right. You want me to go down to the Underworld? There really is such a thing?"

          "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The quote from Hamlet was another one of his favorites. "To answer your question, yes, there really is an Underworld, but it's very different from what Dante had in mind."

          "So, then you're not talking about the Inferno, or are you?"

          "Yes and no. Hell is down there, but it has its own separate area. I can’t answer the many questions I'm sure you'll have because I'm very new to this. They told me it will all be explained later. They’re starting a visitors program, and they sent me to invite you to be part of it. That's why I'm here."

          I heard what he was saying, but I was having trouble making sense of it. "Will there be other visitors?"

          "That's their plan. They want the visitors to come back up here and spread the word. They don't think people up here are getting the right message about what happens after they die and what’s expected of them while they're alive. They think the visitors program will help change that. You’ll be one of the first visitors…that is, if you agree."

          I couldn't believe I was having this surreal conversation. I was glad I was on the bed because I was feeling dizzy.

          "Can you believe this, Thomas? It looks like we’ll be able to go on another Dante adventure together, but this time it will be for real."

          "Do you remember what you wrote on the flyleaf of the Commedia you gave me at Commencement?"

          "Refresh my memory."

          "You wrote, 'Maybe we can do it again sometime.'"

          "Did I say that?” He smiled. "How prescient of me.”

          "This may sound like a strange question, but did you send me an email?"

          "Ah, so they sent it after all. I told them I didn't think it was a good idea, but they thought it would help break the ice."

          "It broke the ice all right and drove me crazy trying to figure out what was going on."

          "Sorry about that."

          "How long is this visit you want me to make supposed to last?"

          "Just a weekend. Friday to Sunday. In and out like Dante."

          By then I was thinking this must be some kind of waking dream. What else could it be?

          "Thomas, there's something else you should know. It’s something they think may help you make up your mind. It's about your father."

          "What about my father?"

          "He's down there."

          "My father's in Hell?"

          "He's not in the Hell part. Some areas down there are for good people, and he's apparently in one of them."

          "I don't understand."

          "I'm just telling you what they told me."

          "If he’s there, will I be able to visit him?"

          "I don’t know, but I don’t think they would have me tell you he was down there if that wasn’t a possibility. But I can't promise anything. There's something else I should mention. On the weekend they want you down there, there’s going to be a “great thinkers” conference with lots of famous people from history. And there’s something else too, but I’m not sure I should tell you.”

          "What?"

          He hesitated. "It has to do with them wanting us down there together as a teacher-student pair. I probably shouldn't say anything, but you have a right to know what's going on." He stopped as if he wasn't sure if he should tell me.

          "What do I have a right to know?"

          "If you decide not to go, I won't go either."

          "What do you mean you won't go either? What will happen to you?"

          "They'll send me back."

          "Back to what?"

          "Back to where I came from. The Big Nap."

          "Big Nap?"

          "That's what they call it."

          "Back to being dead?"

          He nodded.

          "So, if I don't agree to go down there, I'll in effect be killing you. That's what it sounds like."

          "Thomas, I shouldn't have said anything. It's not fair to put you on the spot like this. But I want to be honest about what’s happening."

          I didn't know what to make of this bizarre conversation. The whole premise was wrong. Everybody knows that the so-called Underworld, or Hell, or the Inferno, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't exist except in ancient myths, in Dante's fertile imagination, and now in modern times in the rantings and ravings of demented imams and preachers. Yet here I am talking to Edward's ghost as if Hell really exists and he wants me to go there.

          "Is it safe to assume you don't want to go back to being dead?"

          "That's a fair assumption, but listen, Thomas, I feel bad about barging in on you like this. I can imagine how unsettling it must be. Don't worry about me. I shouldn't have mentioned it. Do what's best for you. 'If I am not for myself, who will be?'"

          "If I am only for myself, what am I?"

          "If not now, when?'" we said together and laughed. It was his favorite Talmud quote and mine too.

          "Good memory, Thomas.”

          "Are you living down there?"

          "For the time being I am, but as I told you, I'll only get to stay if I can get you to join me. Thomas, my time’s up. I have to go. It's been wonderful talking to you. I hope you accept my invitation, but if you decide you can't or don't want to, I'll understand. I won’t hold it against you. I'll be back soon to find out how you're doing with this."

          Before I could ask him any more questions or even say good-bye, he disappeared like a light suddenly turned off.


Chapter 36

          What in God's name was I thinking? How did I let myself get stuck in this trap? Am I really going to Hell like Bishop Howard said I was? Those were some of the questions I asked myself on the flight to Italy. I wanted to get some sleep for the full day ahead of me, but I was too keyed up to relax. I kept telling myself I could always change my mind in Italy. If this so-called viaggio turns out to be a hoax after all, at least I'll be able to spend the weekend in Florence soaking up the atmosphere of Dante's hometown. It was something I had always wanted to do.

          However, my fantasy about spending the weekend in Florence strolling around the Piazza della Repubblica and visiting the Uffizi Gallery kept getting undercut by my suspicion that this so-called viaggio wasn't a hoax at all, but a cleverly orchestrated plot to get me down to Hell. I kept remembering my last meeting with Bishop Howard when as soon as I told him I was definitely leaving the priesthood and wasn't changing my mind, he glared at me ferociously and told me in no uncertain terms I was going to Hell. He then tried to turn it into a joke, but I knew he meant what he said. And now there I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean going to where he told me I was going.

          When nobody met me at the airport, I decided it was a hoax after all. My first reaction was that I was a damned fool for going along with it, but then I felt relieved that I didn't have to go along with whatever it was, whether it involved going to Hell or not going to Hell. Just as I was coming out of customs wondering what I should do now, a short, partially bald man with heavily lidded eyes came up to me and asked me if I was Thomas Reed. He pronounced Thomas the same way Rinaldo did but with even more "tome" in it.

          When I nodded, he introduced himself as Carlo, Rinaldo's cousin, and said he was my driver.

          "Buon giorno," I said and shook his hand, wondering if this meant this viaggio for real after all.

          My saying Buon giorno must have made him think I knew more Italian than I did because on the drive to Monteveggio he did the all talking while I mostly looked out the window at the Tuscan countryside. I would look over at him every so often and nod to let him know I was interested in what he was saying even though I didn't know what it was. The whole time I wished I was someplace else where I could catch up on the sleep I didn't get on the plane.

          After the ride came to a merciful end in Monteveggio in front of the village church, Carlo took me to a small house behind it and knocked on the side door. A bent, wizened woman let us in and went off and came back with an old man dressed in a long-sleeved, black shirt and baggy trousers. He wasn't wearing a collar, so I didn't know if he was the priest or the sexton or somebody else. Carlo had a brief conversation with him, then said good-bye and left.

          The old man, who knew even less English than Carlo, went off and came back with a ring of keys. I followed him out past the church to the road which we walked along until we turned down a lane that took us to a shop with a sign in front that said: "Entrance to Dante's Inferno--Souvenirs for Sale." Why was he taking me there? Did he want me to buy something?

          The shop was full of Dante memorabilia--coffee mugs, postcards, buttons, posters, and T-shirts with messages like "Somebody told me to go to Hell--and I did!" and "I went to Hell and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

          The photos on the walls of tourists standing in front of a bolted door all had the same caption at the bottom: "Entrance to Dante's Inferno." I came all the way to Italy for this?

          The old man rang the bell on the counter, but when nobody came, he rang it again. When I asked him, "Where's the entrance?" all I got was a blank stare. I knew the Italian words for "where" and "entrance," so I asked him, "Dov'e l'ingresso?"

          He motioned me over to the window and pointed at the hut with the bolted door where tourists paid to have their picture taken.

          A tall, thin man with a pinched face came in from the back. "Welcome to our store," he said to me. "We have many wonderful gifts to remind you of your visit."

          The old man took him aside, and they had a whispered conversation. The tall man kept looking at me as if trying to decide what to make of me.

          Now it was my turn to be suspicious. He obviously made his living off the claim that the entrance to Dante's Inferno was on his property. I wondered if he was going to try to use me to promote his business in some way. Since I was all by myself and nobody knew where I was, I felt vulnerable. I could be robbed although without luggage I wasn't a promising target. Still, I had some American money, my passport, and a credit card.

          "I'm supposed to meet Edward," I said. "Father Edward. He used to be my teacher. He's the one who contacted me."

          "I don't know anything about that. All I know is where I'm supposed to take you."

          The photo on the wall above us showed a goofy young couple holding hands in front of the entrance. I pointed at it. "Is that where I'm going?"

          "No, no. That's for tourists. The real entrance is someplace else. I'll take you there." He looked at his watch.

          "I've been in communication with Rinaldo," I told him. "He arranged the flight, and his cousin brought me here." He didn't look convinced, so I said, "Rinaldo gave me a password."

          "What is it?

          "Viaggio."

          He paused, then smiled and shook my hand. "Welcome. My name is Enrico. We were expecting you, but I wanted to make sure."

          "Are you hungry?"

          I told him I had breakfast on the plane.

          "You don't want a last meal?"

          Last meal? I didn't like the sound of that at all. I shook my head no.

          "Time to go then."

          After the old man gave him the ring of keys and left, Enrico went to the back of the shop and came back with a flashlight. He took me out to the road, but instead of turning back toward the church, we went the other way.

          The day was overcast, and it was getting darker. By the time we reached the cemetery, it was starting to rain. I followed him down a path past gravestones, mausoleums, stone crosses, and wilted flowers until we turned off the path and went through a grove of olive trees to a one-storied brick building.

          He unlocked the front door with one of the keys, and I followed him into a large, dimly lit room full of lawn mowers, shovels, rakes, boxes, barrels, and other maintenance equipment. We crossed the room and went down the stairs to another locked door. He had me hold the flashlight while he tried different keys. When he found the right one, he pulled on the handle, but nothing happened. He kicked the bottom of the door and pulled the handle some more, but the door still didn't budge. More kicking and pulling by both of us forced the door open enough to let us go into an even darker room where the air was stifling. He used the flashlight to take us deeper into the room, then stopped.

          "This is where I'm supposed to leave you."

          "Are you sure?" He coughed and shined the light around at the grime, mildew, and cobwebs.

          "Yes, this is it," he said as if he couldn't quite believe it himself. "You're very brave. It's been a long time since anybody tried to go down there. The last one..."

          "What about the last one?"

          "It was many years ago. He never came back. Later they found a corpse. They think it was his."

          Oh great, just what I wanted to hear. The light from his flashlight was giving his face a ghostly pallor.

          By now I was furious at myself for letting him bring me down to this dark, smelly basement. I knew Edward would never deceive me on purpose, but I couldn't stop thinking that he was being used without his knowing it.

          Enrico coughed again. "I have to go now, but I'll try to come back in case there was a wrong communication."

          "Try?"

          "Don't worry. I'll come back. I don't want you to get stuck down here and starve to death."

          "When am I supposed to be picked up?"

          "I don't know. All I know is this is where I'm supposed to leave you. I'll come back later to see if you're still here."

          As he watched him go back to the door, I felt an urge to rush past him and get there first. But I didn't move. I couldn't. I promised Edward. Besides, by now I was too invested in this so-called viaggio not to see it through to…to…to what?

          When Enrico reached the door, he turned and looked at me. "Good luck, Thomas. I'm glad I'm not going where you're going. Buon viaggio." He stepped through the door, pushed it shut, and locked it.

          Bastard! Couldn't he at least leave the door open so I can breathe? Why did he lock it? To keep me from escaping? I made my way through the darkness toward the door, bumping into things on the way. When I reached the wall, I used my fingers to find the door. I pounded on it and shouted, but there was only silence. Couldn't he at least leave me the flashlight?

          I felt like a complete jerk. Why did I let this total stranger bring me down here to this wretched dungeon? What in the world was I thinking? I wanted to cry. As I groped my way back to where I had been, I heard scratching. Could it be a rat? Or two? Or more? To scare away whatever it was, I clapped my hands and shouted. I heard scurrying, then silence. By then I was feeling so tired and defeated I was tempted to lie down on the slimy floor, rats or no rats.

          I heard what sounded like moaning in the distance. Could it be the cries of dead souls seeping up from below? I thought of the sign over the gate of Dante's Inferno: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." Thanks to Edward, I also knew it in Italian: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

          I had not prayed spontaneously since senior year in seminary when I got the letter from St. George's informing me that Edward died. The only prayers out of my mouth since then were the canned prayers I said at church services. But this was a matter of life and death, and I was desperate. If there really was somebody up there minding the store, I needed him or her to come to my rescue right away.

          I knelt down and prayed into the darkness. "Almighty and Merciful God, if you hear this heartfelt prayer of your not-so-faithful servant, please come as soon as possible and deliver me from this hellhole. This is an emergency. Amen."


Beginning of Ch 37

          Trapped in that putrid hellhole with my prayer unanswered, I abandoned all hope as Dante's sign over the entrance to the Inferno instructed us to do. Moments later when I heard scraping and tapping coming from the other side of the basement, I wondered if maybe my prayer was really being answered now. However, the shaft of light that suddenly came through the doorway on the other side of the basement was anything but welcoming. It felt like I was watching a horror movie and the monster was about to push his way in.

          "Thomas Reed?" said a voice. It was the same pronunciation of my name I was getting used to. "Thomas Reed, are you there?"

          I saw a ghostly figure in the doorway, but I didn't answer him. When I realized that if I didn't speak up, I might never get out of that miserable dungeon, so I shouted, "Here I am."

          "I don't have a light, so you have to come over here by yourself."

          I made my way through the clutter toward the door trying not to bump into anything. The smell at that end of the basement was even worse. Dead rats?

          The face of the figure in the doorway was blurry, but as I got closer, I saw he had what seemed to be eyes and fuzz on his head. His garment had a grayish hue like Edward's, but it also had legs and sleeves that made it look more like a jumpsuit than a robe.

          When I approached the door and he moved back and motioned me to enter, I stopped. Knowing I would be crossing the Rubicon and there would be no going back, all my doubts came rushing back. Were Edward's visits what they seemed to be? Maybe they knew how to impersonate him? I heard once again Bishop Howard's voice telling me I was going to Hell, but this time my mother's voice was blending in with his in a macabre duet of damnation.

          The figure motioned to me again, but I still didn't move.

          Wondering what kind of reaction it would get, I said, "Viaggio."

          He stared at me.

          "Viaggio," I said again.

          "Journey. Yes. Exciting journey. My name is Guido. We're expecting you. Don't be afraid."

          "Where's Edward? Father Edward. He's the one who got me to come here."

          "You'll see him later."

          That made me feel better. At least he seemed to know who Edward was.

          "Where is he?"

          "I'll take you there when the time comes."

          When I finally got up my nerve and stepped through the door, he said, "Welcome to the Underworld."

                                        ...to be continued