From Black Ship to Ferry and Never Home Again

[A Short Story]

I unravel from my winding sheet for that is what it is, this flesh which harbors my soul in the same way my soul embraced the flesh in its wanderings like Ulysses aboard his black ships.

As I do, I spy my body at a slowly retreating distance, see its supine figure like a sculpture by Rodin, no, strike that, more like a painting by Caravaggio, the one of Paul struck down on his way to Damascus, every strained muscle in his body and lineament of his face expressing brute confrontation with Truth.

Yes, I capitalized it, or Him, Truth, a living Being, the source and embodiment of the absolute by virtue of His aseity and omnipotence, against whom I thought I could compete with my own truth, small case, t-r-u-t-h, to my own demise when I took up arms against any who would tell me not to heed the siren’s call, or the call of that master rhetorician Ulysses, alive in every age, in every town, in every social circle, school, temple or townhall, the sly, polished poet, a borrower or thief with pockets full of gold who says, “Let’s see what’s out there, so much to see, so much to experience, and oh, the things we’ll learn as we range unanchored to any known shore, pushing that thin envelope of body and spirit to the limit!”

He offered what we all yearn for, knowledge of the world, a wisdom that ordinary people (how we despise them!) in their ordinary little lives could never hope to find, when there’s a world of pure epicurean adventure led by your captain, my captain, let’s call him Ulysses.

I was twenty-nine, hardly naïve, yet naïve as a voter with a politician spinning promises, and so I left my home and went with him, my Ulysses, as ready as he with wit to parley at every Areopagus, eager to hear or spin every newfangled tale ever told, see every exotic sight to behold, by plane, by train, oh, the places to go, to experience every esoteric fad and sensation, and everywhere the dawn rose to the rooster’s call of Carpe diem and the night fell on the cries to transgress, transgress, every boundary, every limit, until my soul gave way from its moorings at the realization that I had gained nothing but lost everything.

Soon I’ll leave for Charon’s Ferry and I wish now – too late — for just one more voyage: a voyage I’ll never know.

Denise's Six Sentence Story Word Prompt is "range" so naturally my thoughts flew to that free-ranging (anti-)hero Ulysses and his place in Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, Commedia. 

Canto 26 is one of my favorite cantos in the Inferno, so much being said here by Dante, revealing how much he too is tempted by the same passion as Ulysses whose supple philosophical genius and rhetorical skills are used to deceive the Trojans and ultimately lead to the doom of his own men as he leaves Ithaca, his home. They sail beyond the gates of Hercules where he and his men spy Mount Purgatory before “a whirlwind rose and hammered” at their ships sending them plunging beneath the ocean waves.

Writes Dante of the seventh circle of the Malebolge before him :

It grieved me then and now grieves me again
when I direct my mind to what I saw;
and more than usual, I curb my talent,

that it not run where virtue does not guide;
so that, if my kind star or something better
has given me that gift, I not abuse it.

ll. 19-24

Now wrapped in twin flames forever are Ulysses and his co-conspirator in deception, Diomedes:

“Within that flame, Ulysses
and Diomedes suffer; they, who went
as one to rage, now share one punishment.

And there, together in their flame, they grieve
over the horse’s fraud that caused a breach-
the gate that let Rome’s noble seed escape.

There they regret the guile that makes the dead
Deidamia still lament Achilles;
and there, for the Palladium, they pay.”

ll. 55-63

In allowing Ulysses to recount his story to his guide Virgil, Dante displays the high poetic style of a rhetorician who smoothly commands compliance by the power of his words. Nothing and no one, Ulysses says, “was able to defeat in me the longing I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men.”

Therefore, I set out on the open sea
with but one ship and that small company
of those who never had deserted me.

I saw as far as Spain, far as Morocco,
along both shores; I saw Sardinia
and saw the other islands that sea bathes.

And I and my companions were already
old and slow, when we approached the narrows
where Hercules set up his boundary stones

that men might heed and never reach beyond:
upon my right, I had gone past Seville,
and on the left, already passed Ceüta.

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left

unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’

I spurred my comrades with this brief address
to meet the journey with such eagerness
that I could hardly, then, have held them back;

and having turned our stern toward morning, we
made wings out of our oars in a wild flight
and always gained upon our left-hand side.

ll, 100-126

That an easy facility with words, the rhetoric of a powerful style, language being a gift or snare, can be used to noble or perfidious purpose, is an idea which, given his own talent, Dante wrestles with in various passages* throughout the Commedia, particularly as this is the primary tool of politics, where the art of persuasion is used by grafters and statesmen alike, by warmongers and powerbrokers, popes and counselors, to maintain peace or strife, leading to the preservation or the corruption of the city state such as Florence at the cusp of the 14th century or, for that matter, our world today.

Dante shows us how Ulysses uses his knowledge and rhetoric to manipulate his men to go beyond all bounds and limits with the false promise that transgression in and of itself is a source of knowledge. It’s the old lie of Satan himself, and we fell for it once, to our own death and damnation.

*In the very next canto, for example, Dante encounters another wrapped in flames shaped by his use of his tongue to give false counsel, who speaks with

. . . the helpless words that, from the first,
had found no path or exit from the flame,
transformed into the language of the fire.

Canto 27, ll. 13-15

The “language of the fire” is a reference to a passage in the Bible which reads:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

James 3:5-9 (bold italics mine)

When Dante asks this flame-engulfed soul who he is, we recognize some of the most famous lines in all literature:

If I thought my reply were meant for one
who ever could return into the world,
this flame would stir no more; and yet, since none-

if what I hear is true-ever returned
alive from this abyss, then without fear
of facing infamy, I answer you.

Canto 27, ll.61-66

The irony is not unintentional.

Nota bene: All quotes are from Allen Madelbaum‘s translation of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

27 thoughts on “From Black Ship to Ferry and Never Home Again

  1. I guess I feel like all roads lead to Rome, whether through the excesses of Ulysses or the circumscribed passion of Emily Dickinson. If I run into a talking snake peddling fruit, I’m likely to take a big bite and then pitch the rest right at his big fat nose.



    1. There are plenty of snakes in the Malebolge. Did you notice the reference in line 23 to “kind star”? footnote says it’s Gemini, which I believe you’ve mentioned is your “kind star” as well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking about diving into Dante…you bring a new meaning to the term, Dora.
    Your six sentences are vibrating!
    {Allow me only to say that Epicurus and his philosophy was so much more than the lazy (or out of envy) label attached of focus to pleasure.}


    1. Thank you so much, Nick, for the kind comments. This is my third run-through of his work and just soaking in it!! The story’s narrator alludes to the summum bonum of Epicureanism being pleasure/good living, but of course you’re right, their philosophy is much more and encourages right living. Dante has them in Hell primarily for denying the immortality of the soul, buried alive in sarcophagi.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I along with Frank was captivated by Truth with a capital T as opposed to the lower case truth. My favourite question of people has always been “is there a Universal Truth “ to which I invariably received a resounding no, but I am still searching for it. The whole mess we have today with pronouns etc. is because of telling your own truth, with a lowercase t. I really appreciate reading your blogs and admire the work and effort you put into them to inform and educate.


    1. Awww thank you Len! The manufactured angst about pronouns plays right into the Ciceronian/Dante belief that politics is really all about manipulating rhetoric to garner power and influence. The best polemicist controls the ideas that affect future generations for better or worse. No wonder our government is so heavily involved in trying to control the terms of the debate on social media.


  4. Fun and invigorating conversation your Six has sparked!*
    A part of the fun is/are new words (to this Reader): ‘aseity’
    cool wordage, yo

    *seems to be the week for this, the potential of a single writer, to spark a community, however briefly.
    Nick did much the same jumping into history mid-twentieth C with his Six


    1. Thank you Clark! I love it — the community conversation that stories engender. It’s one of the delights and advantages of social media that we shouldn’t squander but capitalize on at every opportunity in such a divisive time as this.


  5. Pingback: The Prisoner – Dreams from a Pilgrimage

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