Story art by Patrick Tuohy.
From the author: James Joyce is forced to return from self-exile to Dublin under mysterious circumstances. This story appeared in the anthology Afterlives of the Writers.
Riverrun and dropped me here at halfpenny bridge sopping wet thank you very much. Christ I nearly forgot the smell. Fish and rotten cabbages. Liffeystink.
Stately, plump, I rise from amniotic waters. Passersby ignore me. I stumble through Temple Bar to Grafton Street. A bicycle rolls over my foot yet I feel none of it.
Craving solidity I make for Davy Byrnes pub. I occupy a seat at the bar but cannot catch the barman’s eye. Soaking wet in continental clothes, sporting seaweed and spectacles, I’m hardly inconspicuous.
- Godammit I’m James Joyce! Pour me a pint on the occasion of my triumphant return! Bear me on your shoulders lads and carry me through the streets!
I sulk, ignored. Two oafs beside me debate Parnell. I keep my opinions to myself.
Silence cunning and exile I said once and begawd I meant it. A solemn vow never to return to this benighted shamrock isle, these shite strewn Dooblin streets, or the bars beaches and brothels of my heroic youth. Let Yeats haunt the place. I prefer Zurich.
Yet here I am in Davy Byrnes redublin my efforts to get a pint of plain. Bastard cashed a cheque for Bloom but won’t give me the time of day. Am I invisible? Well perhaps I am.
I remember Zurich. Bloody ulcer. I called for Nora. The nurse ran to fetch her. But the surgeon entered instead, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea. Angel of Golgotha I recognized him. He took my hand and led me down to our cold mad father the sea.
Others were there at the seaside. Angelborn. One by one we were all becoming shades.
- Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, I thought, than fade and wither dismally with age. So, I took the plunge.
If that doesn’t deserve a pint, what bloody does?
It seems during my absence Davy Byrne instituted a new policy to employ deaf and blind barmen. God bless his Christian charity but, in my case, surely Christ Himself would intercede. For me he’d turn wine to stout. There’s none thirstier than a drowned man.
I miss Nora. Will she wash ashore here too? I stand urgently, vertiginous in sobriety, and stumble through pub patrons and walls to the street outside.
I walk the city in search of her, a little cloud, wandering a day or a decade, Saint Stephen’s Green to Sandymount Strand. I peer hopefully at women’s faces, though windows, under bonnets, Irish womanhood in all its glory, maiden mother crone, amen. But none sees me and none is her.
At the beach I consider drowning myself again. Maybe my feary father the sea would carry me back to Zurich and Nora. Waves mount the strand, roaring in ecstasy, falling to nothing, nada, nora, scattering terns, leaving no mark. Just wet sand.
- Hallo, says a friendly voice attached to a pale man with unruly hair, rather younger and dryer than myself.
- You see me? I ask.
- Of course, he says. Where are you going?
- Nowhere. Bottom of the sea?
- Come with me, he laughs. I’m on my way to Bella Cohen’s house to chat the ladies up.
- I’m looking for a lady, I admit.
- Then it’s settled.
We walk in companionable silence to the notorious house where Bella herself greets us at the doorstep, looks us over, and waves us in.
- She saw us! I marvel.
- They get lots of our kind here.
It being a quiet evening, too early for customers, the ladies chat and laugh with us in the parlor. A relief to be seen and heard. My new friend whispers something to a woman in black stockings with red ribbons. Lusty smiles. They go upstairs with a wiggle and a wink.
I hear a familiar Galway lilt. I turn and behold the one lass who can make me feel homesick and horny and drunk all at once (though I had not a drop from that miserly deafblind barman). She wears a rose in her dusksmoke hair.
- Nora Barnacle! I looked all day for you.
- Yes Jim, she says. A decade for me.
- My mountain flower.
- Yes, she says with bold westcountry eyes.
Bella Cohen appears beside us, moth to our sparks, eyes bright as shilling coins, nightdress blowing, cigarette in shadow like a red cyclops eye, the circewitch herself.
- You two want a room? she asks.
I turn to Nora, intoxicated by rose and womansmell.
- Shall we? I ask, trembling and drowning.
- Yes, she swoons. Yes we will. Yes.
This story originally appeared in Afterlives of the Writers.