The Prisoner

[A Short Story]

“When’d he stop talking?” asks the new inmate, staring at the gargantuan man working his mouth on a wad of gum and carting the cell block’s laundry, a mountain of a man encased in glacier-like silence.

“Hasn’t opened his mouth from when they brung him in back in ‘73,” Sully answers, shaking his head, “but he sure as heck works that jaw of his on that gum, never without it, like he’s gotta be chewing on something or somebody he’s got it in for.”

“They got him locked up like a vault, I heard ‘em say, murdered too many for comfort ….”

“More like spliced,” Sully interrupts softly, “cutting up their body parts, reworking ‘em into something unnatural so as you wouldn’t know what they were made to be in the first place.”

“But the cat got his tongue?!”

They laugh, until suddenly he turns to face them, and in the chilling clarity of revelation, they look away, stiff with terror, speechless.

The power of language is no small thing in Dante’s writings. Language is a gift of God, a blessing unique to man. When abused it becomes a curse, as with the Tower of Babel when in his pride man misused his speech to defy rather than honor God. In The Divine Comedy Nimrod and his fellow giants of that time are condemned in Hell to not only chains but to speak gibberish, incomprehensible even to themselves. I’ve mentioned in other posts how honey-tongued Ulysses speaks with Dante, as do many others in the Inferno, showing by their speech alone the manner of their thought while on earth. Both the ambiguity and precision of rhetoric as art is on display here.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563), oil on panel,

Yet there are times when language gives way, as when in Canto 32, Dante is met with the sight of the lowest circle of hell where there is no burning fire, only cold, hard ice.

Had I the crude and scrannel rhymes to suit
the melancholy hole upon which all
the other circling crags converge and rest,

the juice of my conception would be pressed
more fully; but because I feel their lack,
I bring myself to speak, yet speak in fear;

for it is not a task to take in jest,
to show the base of all the universe-
nor for a tongue that cries out, “mama,” “papa.”

Inferno, Canto 32, ll. 1-9, tr. Mandelbaum

The language that utters familiar words of love falls short of this landscape, a vast frozen lake, at the center of which stands Satan, each of his three heads (in an unholy parody of the Trinity) chewing on a traitor, Judas, Casius, and Brutus. The only sounds are the cries of the treacherous who are damned here, planted variously about in the ice.

Twice in his Commedia Dante experiences the utter failure of language to convey the sublime: first, the horror of this frozen landscape with Satan at its center, and then in Paradiso when he receives the beatific vision.

What he sees in the icy core of hell makes him cry out,

O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then-I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.

I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.

The emperor of the despondent kingdom
so towered from the ice, up from midchest,
that I match better with a giant’s breadth

than giants match the measure of his arms;
now you can gauge the size of all of him
if it is in proportion to such parts.

If he was once as handsome as he now
is ugly and, despite that, raised his brows
against his Maker, one can understand

how every sorrow has its source in him!

Inferno, Canto 34, ll. 22-37, tr. Mandelbaum
Illustration by Gustave Doré

Unlike Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Satan is silent, dumb with fury, powerful but imprisoned and, worst of all from his perspective, a means of the pilgrim’s ascent, as following his guide Virgil, Dante makes use of Satan’s hairy legs as the only way to climb downward in order to re-emerge upwards in the opposite hemisphere and into the light of the stars above once more.

See Denise's Six Sentence Story Prompt for more stories using the word "vault" or click here.

37 thoughts on “The Prisoner

  1. Ay yi yi, woman, that’s chilling! What timing, too, cos last night I binge watched a true crime show called Homicide For The Holidays and then had unpleasant dreams afterward. I’m so suggestible sometimes, and such a scaredy cat! 😉

    Thanks, btw, for being my guide over to the Six Sentences site. I’m really enjoying it!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be chilling was my aim but I wish horror could just stay in stories! Hearing the news of the day is enough true crime show for me. Thank you, Shay. So glad you’re enjoying the Six Sentence Story community like I am!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never read Dante’s inferno (I know I should) it’s interesting that ice is the core. I agree about language, it’s a gift and a curse, I do consider words as spells and we have to remember the power they yield!


    1. If you do read the Inferno, don’t make the mistake of stopping there, but read the rest of the Comedy. It really only works as a whole in a contrapuntal way. I’m ashamed it took me this long to get into, far past “mid-way” through my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dora, your last sentence is some serious, good, old school cinema where the montage let’s you imagine the horror instead of showing!
    Excellent Six!

    And you continue your journey in La Comedia.
    (If I may suggest one thing…take some time out from the Inferno every now and then…the Canto is too powerful to be a long time in it🙂)


    1. Thank you, Nick. I was hoping that last line was just ambiguous enough to leave it to the reader’s imagination. As to your advice, this is my third time round the encyclopedic Commedia after becoming interested last year. I intersperse my reading with others, so it’s not Dante 24/7 lol. Although I may be boring others with it. 😭

      Liked by 1 person

    1. A first edition signed copy for my friend Punam! You’re too kind. That would be more my honor than yours. Horror isn’t my thing but I’ve seen enough movies to dredge up a little creatively now and then. 😱


  4. As did Miz Avry and the others, I enjoyed the post ex sixthedra* your musings and forays tangential (both rhetoric and graphic**) to your Six Sentence Story.

    From your Six: “…mountain of a man encased in glacier-like silence.” love the visual it triggers.

    muy coolito

    *lol not a ‘real’ word
    ** I love the Brueghel painting (and, no surprise) the use of art and other media to expand the potential enjoyment available to the Reader

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found that surprising too. You’re so right, another way to think about what judgment/separation from God really means. Made me think too of descriptions of Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” Also in Psalm 95: Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your heart …


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