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The Hall of Heart & Fire

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  • The Hall of Heart & Fire

    The Hall of Heart & Fire

    In a wooden hall in the afterlife
    Where fires fought the darkness,
    And shadows danced by strings
    Of light performing their puppet show,
    Casks were opened and ale flowed
    Into horns held by hands of men
    Who sat at first in somber silence,
    Till the mead and wine and potent spirits
    Moved their own to seek strength and comfort
    Within the company of their thoughtful brethren.

    Dead they knew were they,
    Summoned to that wooden hall
    By beck and call of candlelight.
    Through diamond panes it shimmered past,
    And fell aslant, and gilt the snow,
    Telling tale of the warmth within
    That drew these shades of men from out
    The cold wishing to feel forgotten flames.

    And so they came, alone, in twain, or in
    Goodly company; blue-lipped and bearded
    With white hoarfrost in wintry growth,
    Till meat and drink restored their hue,
    And fanned the embers of their frozen hearts,
    Restoring what life it could unto the dead.

    They say the dead can hold no secrets;
    When the veil of flesh is shorn from soul,
    Then this essence lies answerable
    For all its faults and failings,
    The dealings that it had,
    The passions, pains, sins, and sufferings,
    Words spoken and left unsaid;
    All these trials with which it strove,
    Woven deeply within the tapestry
    In which its life is shown.

    Then Hell and Heaven are not so much places
    As they are lines that thread and shape the fabric
    Composing this naked soul.

    Whispers arose in murmuring waves
    When one soul stood and broke the silence,
    Weeping with forearm placed across
    A wooden pillar and brow buried to hide
    His shame. His horn in hand spilled drink
    Upon a brazier that sent its smoke,
    Cloaking him in a grayish mantle.
    He shook his head, his beard he pulled.
    Words were muttered beneath his breath -
    Confessions of his life bereaved.

    “Speak loudly, brother, and have no fear,”
    Spoke a man of mien both soft and grave,
    “For all us here have a tale, and telling
    May assuage the anguish of having left
    Both kin and kith against our will
    To wander roads in this cold hereafter.”

    “I,” spoke he, “I…
    No great things did I accomplish.
    My life was filled with joy and pleasure.
    Great lust had I for life and all it offered,
    Doling out with generous heart the revelry
    My soul was singing, no matter whether
    It was given towards friend or stranger.
    But now I stand in no small shame within
    This great company of men, not able to boast
    Of any deed; and within this life I loved,

    This life bereaved, what purpose had I then?”

    “Purpose?” spoke another, “Purpose,
    You would ask? No, my friend, your life was blessed.
    Would that I had shared your ardor. Would that
    My own heart your flame had kindled and gave it
    Greater meaning. In cold towers of thought my youth
    Was spent, always bent on advancing knowledge,
    Enamored in my crafts. There it was
    I advanced Man’s cause and left my own to wither.
    Glory I attained at times or missed the mark.
    With calloused hands and wearied mind I learned much knowledge

    But never knew I how to live.”

    “But never a lie you lived!” Exclaimed his neighbor.
    “The truth and knowledge you gave the world, they indeed
    Were worthy. Bravado was the cloak I wore, undertaking
    Deeds of daring to prove my worth, though fear was ever
    My companion. With these I thought to hide my heart
    From a world who would see it soft and timid.
    For a flower, the sins of man, or a fading memory
    At times would set this heart a weeping.
    And the heart’s trove of deep passion, this I ever kept locked
    Within me. Great passion I had wished to show the world,

    But gave instead an empty show of bravery.”

    “You speak of shows,” said one with grimace
    Stirring embers in a fire. “My whole life was no more
    Than a carnival of empty jesting. Twice blessed
    Are you, for worthy were your deeds, giving the world
    A hero it needed, but never hiding from the feelings
    Within you. It was I who was afraid to feel too deeply.
    It was I who hid with humor; making light of my own
    Sorrows and distracting others from their own with words
    And acts of jovial buffoonery. I skimmed along life’s surface
    As a clown, a jester in the court of life. I ran from what was real

    Cowering behind a shielded wall of mirth.”

    “When was mirth ever nothing but a blessing?”
    Spoke with sadness a wearied, grizzled veteran.
    “You lightened the load of human suffering.
    A great boon you were to the hearts of men.
    I lost laughter when my youth was ended,
    When war had robbed me of my innocence,
    Slaughtering men for noble causes so that peace
    And righteousness might prosper. I hoped to visit hell
    Unscathed and shoulder the sin of death upon a granite heart.
    Think you war can make a child more a man?

    I tell you, it has made me less.”

    “Less?” In speaking uprose one who once had stood
    In prouder bearing. “With far less cause have you
    To shoulder such a burden, than have I
    To shoulder thousands. If it was lives you took,
    In doing, your own you risked, while I gambled not
    My own, but others. In waves we sent our nation's children
    To harvest with a blazing sickle not the bones of fallen men
    But the freedom, order, and protection hidden
    In the husks of war, hoping soon those husks would wither.
    Death had paid the price of peace,

    But not from my own purse.”

    “You performed the tasks assigned to you!”

    “You played the role that few could fill!”
    “Even men need themselves a shepherd,

    “No one need have asked you more!”

    With this a clamor rose within that wooden hall,
    And the floodgates of emotion let loose lamenting cries -

    “I should have had a stronger heart!”

    “I should have had a kinder!”
    “Mine was given towards too few!”

    “Mine was always filled with anger!”

    Drink was spilled and fires leapt up
    That brightened that darkened hall,
    And their host who sat hid in shadows
    Now strode forth upon the floor.
    “My friends, my friends, peace, I beg you!
    To each one, different gifts were given,
    Or some the same in degrees that differed.
    I gathered you here unto this hall
    Not for what you have done, but because
    All had done their best.

    "It is from the core of your ardent passions
    That these fires are kept alight,
    And many are the lost ones
    Whom the snows have led astray.
    Gather you each a brand from out the hottest hearth
    To guide them towards this starry furnace
    Where the soul’s mettle is forged aright.
    Your own had filled the forms of flesh as best
    As they were able, and you may now stand tall
    With fist on breast and proudly say without reserve,

    Truly, We Were Men.”

    -- Giovanni Gentile,
    From Cleveland, Ohio