I passed the Devil’s Forest for the third time. The two lovers on the sign seemed content in their painted forest, but they didn’t know the red devil was in the background, waiting in the shadows between the trees. Below this hanging scene, I could tell the pub was certainly Scottish. There was a giant moose head placed above the polished wooden bar, and on the walls were portraits of men in kilts. These bushy men were stationed above a dozen tables that were divided by glass panes advertising Bushmill’s and Glenfidditch. I knew the inside by now; I just kept happening upon it, glancing at the near empty inside. I never did go in. The devil on the sign just watched me pass, laughing in his trees. We both knew that in the narrow streets of Venice, it’s easy to get lost.
I had reached St. Mark’s Cathedral earlier that day, the surprise of sunshine breaking through an overcast sky, but at night, once the train takes the last sluggish group of tourists home, and you leave the main tourist drag, Venice becomes an empty maze, full of quiet ripples in the dark, an occasional overfilled bar, and typical sleepy streets. It was calming; the atmosphere seemed practiced at being beautiful and mystic, the water lapping the buildings like a song that you have to listen close to hear.
Walking through Venice in twilight was a dream from which I would never want to awake. I had spent countless nights imagining myself roaming these corridors between the shuttered houses, which were sometimes partially lit by light posts in the water. Though I was taking in everything, and absolutely loving every minute, the only thing on my mind was inevitable mortality. Would I ever return to the city of my dreams? How much time do I have left? Have the first twenty years of my life been a total waste? All of these questions flickered off and on in my mind, like a failing light bulb, flashes of illumination and obscurity. I was wondering what I would look like in fifty years, afflicted with rheumatism and dementia, wasting away into the earth. The damned inescapability, and the morbid contemplation, slowed my stride. That smiling Scottish devil, he knew. And we both knew, Venice was sinking.
The week before my departure for Italy, I had found my first gray hair, the silver clearly contrasting the black of my beard. I was staying in my girlfriend’s apartment for the weekend in Pittsburgh. I spotted it while washing my face before bed. After plucking it out, gingerly, with a grimace, I showed her. She was more dismayed than I.
“You’re too young to be finding those already!” she cried, hugging me.
“Well, it was bound to happen eventually. We die a little each day.” I kept preaching about death for a little longer, until she got upset and started to cry. I consoled her, as best I could. It was a more sensitive subject for her than it was for me.
As I crossed the Rialto in the wrong direction, again, there was a young couple holding hands, wide wrinkle-less smiles, drinking Chianti at a small table outside of a café. They looked like they were in their mid-twenties. I thought about how they would die before me, they being further on their mortal timeline. Their relationship would probably expire first, like mine will someday. She and I will slip quietly into our separate lives, and then our separate graves. Like Kierkegaard once said, no one enters the world without tears.
Feeling discouraged from an equal mixture of my thoughts and being lost, I sat down at the edge of a lesser canal. I allowed my feet to dangle above the seaweed and trash accumulated water. I was alone, not a soul in the street or a boat idling past, and there was hardly any light. If I were to fall in right now, no one would notice. It would just be a splash, and even if that was heard, I still wouldn’t be seen in the darkness, and by then, it would be too late. There weren’t any stairs on this little channel either. The slime-covered walls would provide no hold. It would basically be a certain death, unless you could tread water long enough, bearing the weight of being fully clothed, for a rescue.
I speculated on how many people drowned in Venice each year. I’m sure none of them would be Venetians; they’re more amphibious than most, their lives revolving around the prevalent water, unless they were children. Kids see themselves as invincible, nothing can hurt them, their innocence much purer than this dirty water below my feet, and they have no conception of death and decay. A vision of my grandfather appeared in the shadows, with his plaid shirt, old jeans, and Irish tweed cap. He was like a child again before he died, afflicted with dementia and senility. Three years ago, I remember having to hold him by the hand, leading him to the bathroom. His face was contorted with confusion and fear. It scared me to see him like that. If he were here, lost in that second childhood, he could just as easily fall victim to these dark waters. The worst part is that will be me in fifty years, a confused corpse, and a bald head hidden under a cap.
I decided to turn back; I could try again in the morning at least. I lifted my body from the edge. A graffiti sign told me, in black spray paint, the direction of St. Mark’s, so I went the opposite way towards the Rialto. The sign lied to me before; I was curious if it would again.
After another half-hour of wandering, feeling tired and wretched, I made it back to the tourist stretch, where there were bright lights and people still eating in various outside establishments. I felt exposed as I emerged from an obscure side street, walking out from the shadows. It was such a sharp contrast to the part of Venice I was lost in: an old couple was laughing at one table, and a family was being entertained by an accordion player at another, two young people were kissing in front of a closed Murano glass shop, and a gondolier was crooning a slow song under a bridge. Everything was bathed in a soft electric light, alive with a magic that only Venice could offer.
I hurried onward to the hotel, where I was supposed to meet two friends, for cheese, bread, and wine on their balcony. The important part was the wine for me; I needed it. I also bought a bottle of limoncello, to split between the three of us, and a beer, all for tonight’s little repast, and I just hoped it would be enough to placate me. I met them in the lobby.
“Sorry, I’m late. I got slightly sidetracked,” I told them, my face feeling sweaty and red from my quickened pace. I must have looked rough; they both seemed a little concerned.
“That’s ok. Did you find St. Mark’s?” one of them quietly asked.
“No, I never did.”
Trying to rub the wrinkles from my jacket and fixing my hair in an attempt to not look like I had went for a depressive stroll through the entire city, we headed for the balcony.
* That night on the balcony, drinking wine and limoncello, and eating the best cheese and bread of my life, was exactly what I needed. The three of us just talked and laughed for hours about everything. I had forgotten my depression temporarily at that table, along with all of my morbid thoughts and the laughter of the red devil. We looked down at the people passing below, making comments on their appearance, creating stories for these strangers. We talked about the trip so far, and what we had seen, about literature and movies. We poked fun at the Italian tour guides. It was so late when I finally left that the hotel clerk had already locked the building up for the night. He was angry that I wasn’t a guest. I apologized, and he let me back out into the street.