The Journey Back, Day 7: The Instructions

He was praying like that and holding on to the altar

When the Sibyl started to speak: “Blood relation

Of gods, Trojan, son of Anchises,

It is easy to descend into Avernus.

Death’s dark door stands open day and night.

But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,

That is the task, that is the undertaking.

Only a few have prevailed, sons of gods

Whom Jupiter favoured, or heroes exalted to glory

By their own worth. At the centre it is all forest

And a ring of dark waters, the river Cocytus, furls

And flows round it. Still, if love so torments you,

If your need to be ferried twice across the Styx

And twice to explore that deep dark abyss

Is so overwhelming, if you will and must go

That far, understand what else you must do.

Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough,

Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base of its stem,

Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place.

It is safe there, roofed in by forests, in the pathless

Shadowy valleys. No one is ever allowed

Down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first

Plucked this sprout of fledged gold from its tree

And handed it over to fair Proserpina

To whom it belongs, by decree, her own special gift.

And when it is plucked, a second one grows every time

In its place, golden again, emanating

That same sheen and shimmer. Therefore look up

And search deep, and as soon as you find it

Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,

The bough will come away in your hand.

Otherwise, no strength you muster will break it,

Nor the hardest forged blade lop it off.

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