Anguished screams slice through the dark gnarled forest.

They pierce my ears from every which way.

Disoriented, the screams twist, turn, form unnatural shapes,

same as the gnarled trees in this looming place.

Everywhere and nowhere.

Shrouded in a suffocating canopy of smooth black,

I stumble along behind my master who tells me,

“Stay alert; the things you’re going to see/ You’d call impossible if I declared them.” (Canto XIII.20-1)

Prickly vines snake around my feet,

broken and bent roots make the ground deformed and crooked to walk upon.

Knotted and misshapen,

the prickly leaves and vines make known the wicked nature of this place.

The deformed nature of the souls trapped in these woods.

I stop. Not for the knotted and misshapen prickly leaves enshrouding my feet, but for the confusion wrapping its vines around my mind.

I cannot cut them away, my ears pierced by screams; I am utterly lost.

My master urges me to snap off a branch, to snap out of my confusion.

Blood gushes from the crippled trunk I snapped a twig from.

As it oozes and sizzles onto the deformed ground I hear the stump bemoan my cruelty.

I am frozen in this hellish inferno.

My master, speaking to the soul imprisoned in the wood, pleads forgiveness for what I have just done; citing his cruel advice as a necessary evil to quench the thirst of my curious mind.

He begs for the soul to speak their truth, to tell their story so I may pass it on to those left behind in a different life.

And so it began:

“I promised. I promised to him I would never love again, would never marry after him.

A time ago the thought of marriage left me cold. Alas, I let my heart burn and yearn for something new. I was convinced not to live a life of spinsterhood.”

It bitterly cackled:

“But now look at me, spun into a twisted tree,

trapped like his knife burrowed deep in my breast.

I swear this was not how it should have ended; we were happy.

Him and I in the cave, like Adam and Eve,

two people built from one another, for one another.

Alas, ‘This is how I want[ed] to pass into the dark below. / The cruel Trojan watch[ing] the fire from the sea/ And carry[ing] with him the omens of my death.’ (IV.766-68)

When you return, tell them.

Tell them this is not how it was supposed to end.”

Hurtling from the suffocating canopy of smooth black,

a spirit collides with deformed ground in no particular place and morphs into a crooked sapling.

Moist click, click, clicking noises fill the wicked woods as harpies feed off the budding succulent leaves of the new evergreens.

They cry and howl, new to the pain.

Harpies paying no mind, sink their razor sharp teeth into its flesh,

beating their powerful angelic like wings,

though they look closer to hell than heaven.

An eternity most fitting for thieves,

an eternity spent trapped in their wicked prison,

trapped with their own self-loathing,

trapped in a place as gnarled and misshapen as their souls.