I used to teach sections of Dante’s Inferno, and as Dante neared the center of hell, the seventh circle, the final circle, is this long ice lake filled with traitors. On the outskirts of the lake, half submerged into the ice were two Italian nobility. The two men were on top of one another, the lower man being consumed by the higher. The lower man, the one being eaten, had betrayed the other, had locked him and his male children into a tower where they starved to death. As each child succumbed, they begged their father to cannibalize their bodies. Which, in my understanding, he did.
In the textbook I was using was a pen-ink sketch of the two men in their icy hell. No gory details were added. Nothing was needed to add on to or embellish Dante’s details of the cannibalizing man returning to his eternal damnation of gnashing his teeth on his traitor’s skull. I remember my horror. My disgust.
But recently, I’ve been reworking my novel, my Polishing the Bones, and thought about how my main character’s, Beth’s, neuroses and insecurities gnaw on her, how they have implanted themselves into her mind and masticated their way through her resolve.
Recently, life’s twists took me to an emotional and mental point in which I realized that Beth’s “cannibalistic insecurities” had somehow twisted into my own sense of reality. I make a decision and then question. Twist my decision around and look at it from another perspective. The never-ending twisting kaleidoscopic decision process means that my insecurities roar to life and begin cannibalizing my sense of resolve. My confidence. My inner trust within my self and my experiences and my knowledge.
I’m not stupid until I distrust myself. I’m not incapable until I look at my hands and somehow convince myself that I’m inept. I can feel the blunt, square shaped teeth gnawing at soft flesh of my determination and then….the putrefaction begins. Tissue peels and the ties that bind each moment to the next fray. The links collapse from the rusty shell coating each section.
And I’m looking backwards at the detritus with open palms and yet more questions. At what point do I stop?
I’m standing once more at one of life’s labyrinths. My world has twisted and I’m presented with a new maze. I have no Ariadne with the magical ball of string that will lead me back if I make the wrong choice. And the walls have thorns. And roses. And poison ivy. And lilac blooms. I can run my finger along the walls to guide me, keep me centered. But the cost can be something wonderful. Or flayed, itchy skin that I will tear at in order to assuage the frustration and pain from non-stop irritants.
Dedalus created the labyrinth so that the Athenian children could be sacrificed in payment for the lost war against Crete (God help me if I’m getting all of my Greek myths wrong. My Greek grandfather would never forgive me). Deep within the labyrinth was the minotaur, the insatiable monster to whom the children were fed. And Ariadne gave Theseus, the hero, the ball of string so that he could enter the maze and navigate its twists and turns until he arrived at the center and cut down the minotaur.
And so I stand at my labyrinth, collecting my courage. Feeling the insecurities awakening. They shift in their shallow holes, sand drifting from them as they sense my questioning. I want to smush my heel on their heads, push them lower, but doing so means I might fall into their sinkholes even deeper. But then, that is a risk I must take if I am finally to find my own path. If I am to be more of the person I know I’m supposed to be.