A Game of Change

An Essay on Dante’s Inferno Canto VII

Illustration by Gustave Dore

Now as we journeyed further through Hell, Dante and I, we came upon a man squat on a rock. His back turned to us, I could not recognize him. He was muttering something, and so we approached close enough to hear:

– Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe…

And so he repeated until he noticed us:

– Oh! Hello there! Welcome, welcome, we are very open!

He made a motion as though to open a door and led us through a doorframe that we could not see, and he showed us around his shop only he could see.

– Everything must go! These sales are to die for! It’s an all-year Holiday hot sale!

He then mimed, as though taking things off the top shelf, and held both his hands out to us, showing something, I don’t know what, but it seemed very heavy.

– This would make a fine gift, its full of special and thrift, here’s a heavy sign, that show’s you’ve lot to recline, have a handle on it, but don’t ever drop it.

Dante sneered at this, but I decided to humor this man, and so I reached my hand out and ‘took it’ – I felt nothing of course – and held it and pretended to inspect it.

– That will be one denarius. Said he.

– We need that for the river man. Said Dante.

– We’ve got enough for him. Said I, handing over one denarius to the man (I always keep ancient coins on my person, just for such circumstances).

As soon as he took it, I was in real trouble. As soon as he took it, there appeared in my hand a large and heavy bag of change – quarters, nickels, pennies, dimes, and other ancient coins – so heavy my shoulders slumped forward, and strained I was to keep my head up. There around me also appeared, the largest shopping mall I’d ever seen – all got up in Christmas stars glaring down – and crowds of shoppers squinting forward, they also carried the same bags as I, but much bigger, so much so they rolled them about the endless promenades.

I tried to drop the bag of change, but it was tied to me with a Gordian knot.

– Well now you’ve done it. Said Dante.

The bag was growing with change. It was getting so heavy I could not hold it, but could only roll it about, like the others, to get to where I was going – I was heading towards the exit, straining against the weight of the insane purse.

The people around me, seeing my maneuver, rolled their bags towards me, and towards me and towards each other, made gestures towards their own bags, goading each other to admire each other’s lot. The bragging became so immense, that I couldn’t even see the exit, so many were the fools.

And I the foolest of fools!

But I had an idea. I opened my bag – inside were all the coins – and I scooped them up in my hands and began to throw them out. The people around me scrambled for it, and I cleared a way to the exit. But still I could not reach it, the bag was filling faster than I could throw the change out.

– Free money! Here! I shouted, displaying my bag.

Now this was a dangerous thing, for all the mall now to me rolled and swelled and grabbed, tearing at my bag and me – shoveling the change as fast as shoppers could shovel – indeed this was faster than the bag could of itself re-fill, and soon the amount dwindled, dwindled, to a single coin, which I threw out, which dispelled the illusion, and I was back in Hell.

The coin struck the trickster man on the head.

– Ow! He said, running away, and shutting himself in his broom closet, which only he could see, and so he looked rather sad and cowardly, crouched a few feet away from us, like a child poorly playing hide and seek, covering his eyes.

He went back to his indecipherable muttering:

– Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe…

Dante asked me if I’d learned anything, and I felt that I had, but I said nothing and moved along, eager to get away.

I don’t like malls.

Cheers to your Sunday morning…

JCL

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