[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.
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
Inferno, Canto 32, ll. 1-9, tr. Mandelbaum
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.”
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
Inferno, Canto 34, ll. 22-37, tr. Mandelbaum
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!
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.