The Living Forest
Climbing a steep mountain Dante and his guide reached the verge of a precipice. On the edge lay a monster named Minotaur, guarding the descent into the seventh circle.
With taunts and mocking words Virgil angered the creature until in impotent fury it withdrew.
"Run to the passage," cried the Bard, seeing that the entrance was for the moment unguarded. And then, as Dante obeyed, a terrible descent began. The two poets climbed over rocks, crept round crags, while huge boulders, set in motion by Dante's feet, dashed down into the abyss before their eyes.
At length they arrived at the foot of the precipice in safety. Before them flowed a red, red river, and in this river all those who had slain others upon earth were now forced to dwell.
Yet, lest they should try to escape from the stream, thousands of Centaurs paced along the banks, armed with sharp arrows. These Centaurs were strange creatures, half man half horse, and had often been heard of in the early ages of the world.
They aimed their arrows at the condemned spirits, should they ever venture head or shoulders out of the red river, further than their punishment allowed.
Seeing Dante and his guide, three of these Centaurs rushed toward them, their arrows strung ready for flight.
"Stand!" cried one of the creatures, "and tell from whence ye come. If ye come near I draw my bow."
But Virgil spoke courteously to the Centaurs and told them how Dante had been entrusted to his care by one of the blest spirits. Moreover, he begged from them a guide, which was granted to him without a murmur.
Along the bank of the red river the Centaur guide led the two poets. As they passed onward Dante saw some spirits who were in such deep water that it reached even to their brows.
The Centaur paused to tell the poets the names of these, names, many of them, renowned for their wicked deeds.
A little further along the water grew less deep, reaching only to the throat of the spirits, and so it continued to grow more and more shallow until they came to a ford. Here the river merely lapped the feet of the spirits or of those who passed over it. Virgil and Dante, led by the Centaur, crossed by the ford over to the other side. Here their guide left them, and recrossing the stream went back along the bank of the red, red river.
But to the poets the way seemed as bewildering here as on the other side of the stream. They found themselves indeed at the edge of a strange forest, a forest unlike any Dante had known on earth.
No pathway was there, nor even a narrow track worn by passersby. Leaves there were in plenty, but among them glistened no green ones; all were dull, dead. The branches of the trees were gnarled and crooked, and on them fruit was there none, but thorns there were, many and poisonous.
No song of joyous birds echoed through this sunless wood, but Harpies sat upon the gnarled trees and wailed drearily.
Now a Harpy was a monster with the wings and claws of a bird, with the body of a woman, and with a face pale from hunger. Little wonder was it that Dante shrank from entering so dark and dismal a forest.
But as he followed his guide Dante was bewildered by other sounds than the wailing of the Harpies. It seemed to him that all around the air was full of the sobbing and the sighing of human souls.
The poet looked around him, peered behind the trees and through the branches, yet saw no one.
Then said his Master, "Pluck one of these brown branches and thou wilt soon understand what now bewilders and dismays thee."
Dante put out his hand as he was bidden and plucked a bough from a wild thorn tree.
No sooner had he done so than a strange thing happened.
The thorn tree itself began to speak in a piteous voice.
"Why dolt thou tear me?" it wailed, while drops of brown blood oozed out of its trunk. "Is there no pity in thy heart that thou pluckest my leaves? Once these trees which thou seest around thee were men. Learn therefore to treat us with forbearance."
The voice died away, but tears now fell from the spot from which Dante had wrenched the branch.
In haste the poet dropped the twig which he held in his hand. Now, indeed, he understood.
The trees were in very truth human beings, who, because on earth they had slain their own bodies, were being punished in this terrible way. The sobs and sighs he had heard were in very truth those of these unhappy spirits.
Virgil too was sorry for the pain that he had caused, and begged to know who thus pled for pity. "Tell us thy name," said the Master, "and my follower shall speak of thee when he returns to earth. And by his words shall he atone for his unwitting roughness to thee here."
"I am Piero delle Vigne," answered the tree, in a tone of great grief.
Dante knew the man well. He had been one of the people, but by his eloquence and learning had risen to fame, and had become the Chancellor of a great Emperor.
So greatly had the Emperor trusted and honoured Piero that the courtiers had grown jealous.
They therefore wrote letters to an enemy of the Emperor, and to these letters they signed Piero's name. Then in their cruel jealousy the courtiers had sent the letters to the Emperor that he might believe that Piero had betrayed his secrets to his enemy.
And the wicked plan was successful. Piero's master read the letters, and seeing that they were signed with his favourite's name, he at once thought that Piero was a traitor and commanded that his eyes should be put out.
Disgraced and in despair, through no fault of his own, Piero's courage had failed, and he no longer cared to live. In his cowardice he put himself to death. It was for this sin that he was now a human tree in this strange forest.
Dante was still talking to Piero and thinking sadly of his story when he was interrupted by a loud noise.
Trampling down bushes, knocking off twigs and leaves in their desperate haste, Dante saw two spirits, fleeing as from some great terror. Swiftly behind them came a band of gaunt, fleet mastiffs.
One of the spirits, named Jacopo, as he ran, stumbled against a tree and fell, bruising the trunk and shaking off its leaves as he did so.
Then the mastiffs rushed upon Jacopo, and rent him in pieces.
Meanwhile, the tree which had been so rudely shaken moaned bitterly, "O Jacopo, Jacopo, why didst thou stumble against me? Sorely hast thou wounded me!"
Dante, full of pity for the spirit, stooped, and lifting up his scattered leaves, restored them to the stricken tree.
Leaving the forest, Virgil and Dante now reached a dreary plain. They were in another division of the seventh circle, where those who had been violent against the great God Himself were punished.
On the edge of this desolate plain the two poets stayed their steps. Thousands of spirits were here, weeping, weeping. Some lay on the ground prostrate, some crouched close together, some paced ceaselessly up and down the plain.
Upon these wretched spirits a great storm was falling, a storm of fire-flakes, which they tried in vain to thrust aside with their hands.
As the two poets passed along, one of these spirits recognised Dante, and catching hold of his robe, he cried out, "O marvel! is it thou?"
The poet bent down to see the face of the spirit who thus held him, and in wonder he beheld his own old tutor, who had also been his friend. Sadly he said, "Ser Brunetto, art thou here?"
"Let me walk with thee a little way," pleaded his old friend, and to this Dante gladly consented.
Together they paced along the fire-flaked plain, talking of the old days in Florence, the old studies. Yet, over all the joy of meeting, Dante felt the shadow of great pain that Brunetto should have done such evil that he must endure so great a punishment.
Ere they parted, his tutor begged Dante to take care of the great work he had written on earth. This was a book called "The Treasure." And we can well believe that Dante would gladly promise to do so, as he said farewell to his old friend and tutor Ser Brunetto.