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The 13th Canto
I can tell you this, obsession is a tricky devil. Inch by inch it grows while deceptively hiding its strength behind subtle rationalizations. It drives you down paths you could not dream of and out across the maddening gulf only to abandon you when you are beyond redemption.
The case in point, while in New England I obtained an old issue of an obscure occult journal. It wasn't long before I was engrossed in the articles, which I generally found puerile. That is, until I started reading a submission by R. Crawford, Ph.D. It was a survey of medieval magical texts. One book in particular piqued my interest, that mysterious book called The Libro di Sinistro which is about the most heinous of occult subjects, the summoning of the dead and daemons. The book had a long complicated history which the professor meticulously recounted. He explained that the seventeenth and last part of that repulsive volume was an epic poem called Il Tredici Canti del Piero Pers. His description of this poem about a man searching for his lost love intrigued me. Further, the professor explained that the poem was an allegory as many medieval works are and that forbidden knowledge was possibly hidden within.
For days after reading the article, I found myself searching the internet for anything about The Libro di Sinistro. Little came up except for the regular hokum; it was a name that circulated on occult boards, but in the internet equivalent of hushed whispers. However, the advent of the electronic age gave me access to online catalogs that hadn't existed when Professor Crawford penned his article, and I was able to track down a fragment of a medieval text titled Tredici Canti in the Bibliotecca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy. Could this be the same Il Tredici Canti del Piero Pers that was part of the infamous Libro di Sinistro? Did it hold some magical power or mysterious and frightful truth? My obsession began.
Now this is where luck, or perhaps fate, played an integral part of the story. It just so happened that I had an old college friend named Mario Rossi who lived near Rome. Mario was a mere three hours from the library in question and I called him to see if he could obtain a photocopy of Tredici Canti for me.
"I would also like you to translate it into English," I said to Mario.
"So you think I still have the poet's ear?" he asked. I could tell he was intrigued. His job left little time for artistic pursuits.
"You know how terrible il mio italiano è," I said.
Warmth filled his voice. "For you il mio amico, I would happily do this."
Shortly after, Mario had an occasion to travel to Florence for work. There he learned that the library did have a copy of Tredici Canti on microfiche and with a little work, he photocopied it.
A few days later, I received his translation of the first canto. I read it through several times. In the poem the protagonist is on a quest to find his lost love, the beautiful Dolce, who has died from the Black Death. I could see similarities to Dante's Inferno, both in structure and content. However, most of the lines, through no fault of Mario's, seemed to be grotesque doggerel:
The pestilence penetrated, all perished
from pustules, blood from sinus, anguished, frenzied,
a retribution on those we most cherished.
But despite its strangeness and apparent lack of quality, I felt compelled to read on. I continued to pester Mario until he promised to send me one translated canto a week. The wait was agonizing. Upon receiving a canto, I would immediately analyze it and take copious notes. I would research the minutest detail, looking for traces of hidden knowledge. And as each week brought me closer to the end, I began to identify with the poem's protagonist. His journey was through a barren surreal landscape and my obsession had forced me into a mental state that was very much akin.
That is why the last stanza of the 12th canto reverberated so:
I danced la poesia in a macabro fit,
then my eyes fell at last on the final ditch,
though it led, I knew, to the infernal pit.
Looking back through my notes I could see patterns and the final canto held the key. But the next message I received from Mario was not what I expected. It was disjointed, almost incoherent. He'd been plagued by strange dreams. I immediately called. His voice was thin and lifeless.
"…I must burn Il Canti, burn them all," he said. In anger I called him childish and demanded he finish the 13th canto. There was a long silence but finally he acquiesced.
Over the next several weeks I heard nothing from Mario. I thought about my angry words and my obsessive behavior. I feared then that I had gone too far. I tried calling again only to discover that his number had been disconnected. What could have happened to my friend? I recalled that Mario was from the town of Nerola and that he mentioned having a brother there. Desperately I wrote a letter, addressed it to the name Rossi and sent it off in the hopes of connecting with some relative that might be able to put me in contact again with Mario.
Months passed, but eventually a response came. As I read the letter describing my friend's fate, my heart was in my throat. Shortly after our last conversation, there was a fire in Mario's apartment. He was found dead in the bathroom, but despite his efforts, his body hadn't been consumed by the flames. They found large oozing tumors around his neck, the toilet was filled with vomited blood, and his arms and thighs were covered with black spots. The answer was there in those horrific details, but only I would know; by translating The Cantos, Mario had summoned the Black Death.
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