It is now late in the afternoon when an angel stops the three travelers and tells them that they must complete the rest of their circuit around this last terrace within the flames. Dante is terrified, but after much coaxing from Virgil, he passes through the fire. By the time they reach the other side, night is falling and they fall asleep on the last stairway. Dante dreams of the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. At daybreak and on the top step of that final staircase, Virgil tells Dante his guidance is now finished and Dante is on his own. Virgil proclaims him to be lord of himself.
It was now the hour of sunrise in the land where God’s Son shed His blood for us, midnight where Spain’s Ebro flows, and noon over the Ganges in India. And here, the sun was beginning to set when another of God’s rejoicing angels appeared to us. Standing there ahead of us near the flames, he sang in the most beautiful voice: Beati mundo corde!
Then, directing his voice to us as we approached him, he said, “Holy souls, you cannot proceed beyond this point without feeling the fire’s bite. Enter within these flames, now, and listen to the singing just beyond them.”
I cannot begin to tell you the terror his words aroused in me. Hearing them, I felt like one who is about to be buried – alive! Nervously clutching my hands as I stood there staring into those flames, I recalled the sight of people being burned to death. But in the meantime, my sympathetic guides came toward me, and Virgil said: “My dear son, calm yourself. You will feel pain here, but you will not die. Think back to when we rode on Geryon. If I guarded you carefully then, you can be sure that I will do even more now that we are so close to God. Trust me when I tell you: if you spent a thousand years within these flames, not a single hair on your head would be singed. But test it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Put the hem of your cloak into the flames there. This is the time to put away your worry. Look at me, now. Come here and go in without fear.”
But I was frozen where I stood, and so ashamed. Then, seeing me standing there immobile, and with some annoyance in his voice, he said: “Come now, my son, don’t you understand that this is all that separates you from Beatrice?”
Hearing him say that, I thought of Pyramus who, as he died, saw his beloved Thisbe come to him and speak her name – that day when mulberries turned the color of his blood. And so, hearing that lovely name that has a shrine in my heart, I unfroze and turned to my wise teacher. For his part, shaking his head and smiling at the change he had won in me, said: “So, then, are we going to stay on this side?”
And with that he walked into the flames ahead of me. He asked Statius, who had been walking between us, to walk behind me now. When I was within those flames, I would have thrown myself happily into molten glass to cool off from the unbelievable heat! All along, that sweet father of mine comforted me, talking about Beatrice as we made our way. “I think I can see her already,” he said. Guiding us all along our way we could hear a voice singing to us. And so, following that song, we came out of the flames just where the stairs were.
A voice greeted us. “Venite, benedicti Patris mei,” came from within a light so bright I had to turn away to keep from being blinded. Then it continued: “Now that the sun is setting and night is upon you, do not stop here. Move on quickly before the light has gone.”
The stairway went straight up through the rock with my shadow blocking the last rays of the sun as we climbed. Soon enough, even my shadow disappeared, telling us that the sun had set. As night began to fill the sky, we quickly lost the will to climb and each of us chose a step for our bed.
Like goats who run quickly here and there on the mountain, and then stop to chew their cud in quiet shaded places, guarded by their shepherd who protects them, or a herdsman who lies down with his flock and keeps watch over them, so there we were – the three of us – on those stairs: I the goat, and they the shepherds, and all of us closed in by the walls of stone.
Looking up beyond those walls, the stars I could see seemed much larger and brighter than usual. Staring at them, and letting my mind wander, I fell into a deep sleep – the kind of sleep that brings foreknowledge with it. Shortly before dawn, with Venus burning brightly in the eastern sky, I had a dream about a lovely young lady picking flowers in a meadow as she walked. And she sang this song: “Should anyone ask, my name is Leah. I love to make garlands of flowers so that I will look beautiful when I see myself in my mirror. My sister is called Rachel. She sits all day before her mirror quietly looking at her lovely eyes. I enjoy adorning myself with things I make with my hands; she sits and reflects, I act.”
When I awoke, the dawn had broken in all its glory – for the returning pilgrim every sunrise brings him closer to home – and every trace of the night disappeared. When I got up from my stone bed, I saw that my masters had already risen. Virgil said: “Today the sweet fruit that mortals seek on many trees will bring true peace to your soul.” I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful gift – given or received – than those joyful words. They were like wings lifting me upward to where I wished so ardently to go.
We swiftly climbed those last stairs, and as we stood on the very top step, Virgil looked into my eyes and spoke with great affection in his voice: “My dear son, on our journey you have seen the eternal and the temporal fires, but you have now reached the place where my direction comes to an end. I guided you here with skill and ingenuity, but from now on, you are on your own. The hard roads are far below, so let your desire lead you from now on. Look around you, see how the sun shines on your face, observe the grass, and all the flowers and trees that originate in this place. Until Beatrice comes with her beautiful eyes – once filled with tears when she sent me to you, you are free to stay right here or to wander around as you please. Do not expect any further guidance from me. Your will is clear and free, and not to follow it would be wrong. I place on you the crown and the miter, and I proclaim you lord of yourself!”