Dante’s Inferno: Canto 21 Retelling — The Grafters

Chapter 21: The Grafters

Arriving at the fifth pocket, Dante noticed a strange darkness. A dark pitch or tar was boiling in the pocket the way that dark pitch boiled when the Venetians repaired their ships during the winter when they could not sail. Here boiling bubbles popped in the pitch.

Always on the lookout, Virgil said to Dante, “Watch out!” He stood by Dante, who looked up and saw a frightening black devil coming along the ridge. The devil had wings and moved quickly, and he was carrying the soul of a sinner.

The devil shouted, “Hey, Malebranche, here’s another sinner, one of the elders of Santa Zita. Plenty more grafters are coming to be punished here. Stick him under the boiling pitch. These are the people who accept bribes to change decisions.”

Graft is a bribe, Dante thought. When I was exiled from Florence, I was unjustly accused of being a grafter. A politician who takes money to pass legislation favorable to a certain corporation is guilty of graft. A judge who takes money to rule a person innocent instead of guilty is guilty of graft. What simony is to the religious world, graft is to the secular world.

And Virgil thought, Malebranche is a good name for these black devils. Malebranche means Evil Claws.

The black devil flung the sinner into the boiling pitch, and the sinner rose to the surface and floated on his back, with his hands outstretched as if he were being crucified. The black devil took off quickly to bring another sinner to be punished here.

The other devils saw the floating sinner and instantly jabbed him with a hundred pitchfork prongs, saying, “No floating here. Don’t imitate a person on a cross. All you sinners stay below the surface of the sticky pitch so you can bake. We have grappling hooks, and if we catch you raising yourself out of the hot pitch, we will torment you.”

This is another contrapasso, Virgil thought. The grafters were sticky fingered, and so now they are sticky from the pitch in this part of the Inferno. The grafters used their political and judicial offices to take bribes and make money. As these people manipulated and tormented other people during their lives, so the demons manipulate and torment the grafters.

Virgil also thought, These black devils can be dangerous. I have been here before, so I know that I must be careful to protect Dante.

As the black devils used their pitchforks to push the sinner down into the boiling tar like a cook’s assistant uses a fork to push the meat down into the boiling broth so it will cook better, Virgil said to Dante, “It’s best if the black devils don’t yet see you. Hide yourself behind a rock. The black devils will see me, but whatever they say to me, don’t worry. I have been here before, and I know how to act and what to say.”

Virgil crossed the bridge, and he looked as bold and as brave as he could. The black devils saw him, and they came out from under the bridge to accost him.

Virgil shouted at them, “Behave yourselves! Let me talk to your leader before you start jabbing me with your pitchforks. After I talk to your leader, you can decide whether you still want to jab me.”

The black devils all cried out, “Let Malacoda talk to him.”

The black devil known as Malacoda stepped forward and said, “What good will talking to me do you?”

Virgil replied, “Do you think that I would have come so far in my journey through the Inferno if it were not the will of God? I am on a mission from God, and I have God’s protection. Now that you know that, you must let me and a companion pass.”

Malacoda’s face fell, and he allowed his pitchfork to fall, too. He told the other black devils, “Don’t harm this man.”

Virgil then said to Dante, “You can come out of hiding now. We will be OK.”

Dante came forward, making sure to stay close to Virgil, but to him the black devils looked threatening. He could hear them muttering to each other, saying things like, “Should I stick this pitchfork in the living person’s rump?” Most of the other black devils answered, “Go ahead!”

But Malacoda, the black devil in charge of the fifth pocket, said, “Keep your hands and pitchforks off these people!”

Then he said to Virgil, “The bridge across the sixth pocket is broken here, but just ahead you will find a bridge that is still sound and that you can use to cross the next pocket. The bridge was destroyed 1,066 years and one day and five hours ago.”

Virgil thought, The bridge was destroyed by the earthquake that occurred during the Harrowing of Hell. I remember when the Mighty Warrior rescued the deserving souls and took them out of Limbo.

Malacoda continued, “I am sending some devils that way to make sure that the sinners stay deep in the boiling pitch and do not raise their backs out of the boiling bubbles to find relief from pain. You may travel with them.”

Then Malacoda said to the devils, “Step forward, Alichino, Calcabrina, Cagnazzo, Libicocco, Draghignazzo, Farfarello, and Rubicante. Barbariccia will be the leader of all of you. Walk along the pocket and make sure that the sinners stay deep in the boiling pitch. Take these two to the unbroken bridge that crosses the sixth bolgia.”

Dante was worried about having a pack of devils as an escort. He said to Virgil, “I don’t like this. Let’s travel by ourselves with no escort. Look at the devils. They mean us harm! They grind their teeth and wink at each other. We are in danger here!”

But Virgil replied, “We are safe. It is the sinners who are in danger of being tormented by the devils.”

Like a military troop, the black devils saluted their leader, Malacoda, but they saluted by putting their tongue between their lips and making a farting sound.

Malacoda returned the salute by using the hole in his butt as a bugle and farting.

Malacoda is indeed a suitable name for this black devil, Virgil thought. Malacoda means Evil Tail.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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