The forest led to a hotel built in the shape of a staircase. I realized eventually, that I had been wrong all this while. There was no other side to the forest. It led, and therefore, concluded at the hotel. There was nothing beyond that. No open skies. Nor a field that ran till eternity, neither a road that led to a town bustling with colourful people.
I don’t remember how I came to be in the forest.
All I remembered were the trees that went high up into the skies, blocking the view. Looking up, all you could find were patches of sky, fitted between the trees by some architect. Skies held up between trees like closed circuits, and flashlights to illuminate the way. Yes. The patches of sky in the forest had a particular mission: to illuminate the way when the morning came.
And did I tell you about The Way?
The Way was a small clearing that ran through the forest, and it seemed to have been made by the constant toiling of men through the same route, over and over again. Although during my lengthy stay in (or rather, walk through) the forest I never met a single soul – neither man nor animal. The only life I could sense around me was the overarching trees.
In the night, the patches of sky would dim down, and all you were left to do was sleep, or wait for the next morning, staring at the patches of sky with stars fitted onto them. When the morning came, you were meant to continue along the way and hope all the while that you would be led on to the other side. To freedom. To a highway. Or a field where the farmers should be along with their cattle, and you would run up to them in joy.
The design of the door was contemporary; it opened, rather smoothly, on being pushed. On its other side, it revealed an atrium, the size of a museum floor, with glazed Italian marbles and granite flooring. Taking a turn to the left, I found a reception counter, and would you believe? – An actual lady standing behind the desk. She was dressed in a uniform, but whether that enhanced her beauty or diminished it, I was not in a state to say. The first lifeform, and human too, after what felt like an eternity.
“Benvenuto alla Serenissima Hotel”, she said, noticing me.
“Sorry?” I shook my head as I took two steps towards her as if reducing the distance would make the foreign language more discernible.
“No.” I shrugged.
“Well, then, Welcome to Hotel Serenissima. How may I help you, Signore?” The smile on her face was once again restored.
“Umm… I, uh…. First tell me why do you have a hotel inside this forest? Do you have people coming in?”
She gave me a blank stare for a while. But soon the smile on her face reappeared –
“Ahh. You are being funny. Joking. I see. I…. realize.”
“Joking? Of course not. Been in the forest long enough to have lost my sense of humour by now, I think,” I said smiling back at her.
“Venice is a big city, Signore. Lots of people from different places, different thinking.” She looked offended this time.
“Venice?” I almost shouted.
“Si, Signore. Venice! Where you are, you think?”
“But… but I just came in through a forest.”
“You want a room?” There was a matter-of-factness in her voice. She wasn’t interested in the conversation anymore. I had just called her beloved city a forest, and she was calling the forest Venice.
Upstairs, in the corridor that led to my room, I came across a few other people. All dressed nicely. Decent folks, by the look of it. I found my room, soon enough. Room number 901, it said. I used the key and got inside.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the colour of the walls. Pitch black. If you were to wander into the room in the dark, you wouldn’t know where the walls were. Darkness, it seemed, would eliminate the room and replace it with an infinite space, black and unending. But it wasn’t dark yet. It was morning, and I saw the light pouring in through the window.
That brings me to the second thing I noticed about the room. The ceiling of the room was much too high. And it had exactly one window – quite large and open, but it was elevated on this towering wall, almost close to the ceiling. You wouldn’t be able to look out of it, even if you were ten feet tall. It was almost as if they didn’t want you to gaze outside.
But then, they did.
Among all other conveniences they provided in the room, there was a ladder, just the perfect height to climb up to the window, and I had to. I had to check if this was Venice indeed or just the forest. I pulled the ladder close to the window and started climbing.
Would you believe me if I told you it was the toughest climb of my life? Because it didn’t feel like I was climbing a ladder, but further, as if, into my own head, to find answers to all the confusion that there has been. None of it made much sense; it all made my head feel heavy as if my thoughts had gained mass, but whether they had any significance, I could only find out with the climb. I needed answers, but little did I know then, that the answers you find are not always to the questions you ask.
As I peered out of the window, for the first time, I noticed the blue skies – open and all encompassing. There was neither a city nor a forest, just the skies that went on forever. But more strangely, gliding effortlessly through the skies, was a whale. The vastness of the blue azure suited it well. It floated across the skies, slow and calm. Its tail moved with the same rhythmic slowness that glided its entire body as the whale made its way through the silent airs. Its greyness protruded over the soft, white clouds that hovered around it, enraptured by its presence. It was a scene of unparalleled beauty and serenity, but I felt dizzy.
I found my head spinning. I could attach no meaning to any of it. Meanings are almost as important as food and sleep are to our existence. Therefore, I held myself together. The ladder did not help me find answers to the things I had been questioning but gave me answers to ones I never thought of asking before. Maybe, downstairs I would find some real explanations.
I rushed out of my room and for the reception desk, sprinting between my walks.
“I saw strange things outside my window.”
The lady was already too displeased with anything that had to do with me. And so, without looking up she asked, in a rather mechanical voice –
She looked up at me in disbelief. And then again, looking down, she said –
“You please return to room. I will send someone to check. Show me the room key.”
I took the room key out of my pocket and showed her.
“Okay. You go now.” She noted it down.
“But I need answers.”
“To the things, I saw outside my window.”
“In room 901?”
It seemed she could not keep her cool anymore. And stared directly into my eyes, this time –
“Signore, we don’t have 9th floor. So, there is not a room 901 – -”
“Of course, there is. Then what is this room key for?”
She inverted the key in my hand –
“Room 106, Signore.”
I stepped out of the Hotel Serenissima, into the forest again, with the overarching trees, patches of sky, and The Way. My head was buzzing.
It doesn’t make any sense.
It does not make any goddamn sense.
Did I just step out of Venice?
And landed right into the forest?
I looked back instinctively at the Hotel Serenissima. It was constructed in the shape of a staircase. Did that have any relevance too? Or its black walls? I was too tired to think.
I imagined my heartbeat pacing up. My right hand moved as a reflex and placed itself on the chest and – –
There was no heartbeat.
I pressed my chest more tightly, in search of a rhythm that was not to be found. That accustomed rhythm that confirmed the continuation of days well spent. The symphony of life. A life I had no memories of, except for the forest and the hotel.
The hotel in the shape of a staircase.
O dear God!
The Whale in the blue skies.
O, dear benevolent God!
Did I just come running down from…? And… And what is this forest, then?
I saw a fire starting far away, engulfing the forest.