The Dwelling Place
creative nonfiction by Susan Tekulve

Twenty minutes before dusk, a week before Christmas, I slip between hedges into St. Stephen’s Green, and run into a bust of James Joyce. His head looks bludgeoned by age. His poor eyes gaze inward, as if remembering the inkpot houses of his transient childhood, or the furious father who dangled him by the ankles over the low and dirty Liffey to make a man out of him. I circle the statue of Dublin’s famous son, the one who wrote his birth city from memory while exiled in Italy. I think, how like the kind Irish to rest Joyce’s weary effigy inside this quiet green, between a sensory garden for the blind, and a statue of the three Norns, Nordic fates that emerge from a great ash, Ydrisil, the tree of life.

The sad statue of Joyce can’t compete with the statue of the Norns. The fate of the past kneels, drawing water from a shallow basin woven with fallen leaves and bright pennies. She weaves the water into a rope, threads it through the fold of her gown, passing it up to the fate of the present, who catches the rope, measuring it between thumb and forefinger. The third fate, goddess of the future, leans over present and past, weighing the rope against a seed pod resting in her upturned palm, cutting the thread according to man’s destiny. 

Two businessmen, dapper in black car coats, sidle up beside me. The first looks at his watch, and suggests they head over to the lake in the center of the park. The second man lingers, remarks, “I really must dwell here for a while.” As the two men part, I marvel at the second man’s nimble wording, and remember why I’ve come to Ireland. I want to live for a while in a place where a man on the street might use a word like “dwell.” I want some time away from my family’s home in Clermont County, another plot of green that rises from another dirty river. There, my mother dwindles in a memory ward gouged out of an old parochial school, her body dissolved by osteoporosis, her mind unlearning the words for love and orange juice.  I’m an adult, married for decades, with a career of my own, and yet I’ve felt parts of myself worn away by her illness, my whole adult life vanished, my sense of self effaced. The more unearthly my mother becomes, the more brittle I feel. My joints ache, and I’ve popped the crown off a back molar, twice in one year, from grinding my teeth. Brittle and bone weary, I want a brief winter holiday in a city famously devoted to the preservation of its stories, its history printed and made visible, remembered.


Earlier that morning, my husband Rick and I waited out the morning rains in a dark wing of Dublin Castle, filing past exhibits of rare print books dating back to 2700 BC. The rooms of the Chester Beatty Library were dark and smelled of linseed oil. For some reason we whispered, as if in church. In a way it was like being in a place of worship as we lingered over glass reliquaries filled with words transcribed by priests and diviners who predicted times of prayer, months of the lunar calendar, the direction of Mecca. Rick, an ex-football player and poet, rushed toward The Tale of Oeyamn, a wall-length scroll that told the Japanese tale of six Samurai rescuing a maiden kidnapped by a demon. I lingered over a case of Chinese jade tablets, books made of gray jade brushed with pearl white calligraphy, the script so skillfully rendered it was said the calligraphers had grasped the living spirit of flowers and the sun.

I met up with Rick in the final room filled with row upon row of papyrus sheaves hieroglyphed by tribes of Egyptian scribes who devoted their lives to copying The Book of the Dead, its pages filled with instructions for how to pass safely into the afterlife. The Book of the Dead made me feel tired, glutted by words. I was relieved to find Rick at the end of the museum, standing outside a darkened movie theater, where the Colorado mining magnate, Chester Beatty, the original owner of the collection, droned, “Rare books are like penguins, really. They all tell the same story.” 

I told Rick I was going to hunt for the city’s statues. Depleted, heavy with the weight of so many words, what I really wanted was a stroll through the day’s last light, the sociability of Dublin streets.

The crackle of the antique film footage broke the museum’s spell. Rick and I silently agreed to leave. Outside the exhibit, the sun shone through the glass ceiling of the museum’s café, glinting off icicles melting along the castle’s turrets. Rick voted to go to a pub on Grafton Street for fish chowder and a dram of Green Spot whiskey. I bought a book about the city’s statues in the gift shop. Within its pages, I located the Joyce statue on St. Stephen’s Green. I told Rick I was going to hunt for the city’s statues. Depleted, heavy with the weight of so many words, what I really wanted was a stroll through the day’s last light, the sociability of Dublin streets.


The statue of the three Nordic fates was given to the Irish by the German government for housing 1,000 German War orphans during WWII. In the winter light, they look vestal, warm, and generous. Late afternoon sun burnishes their faces. The leaves of the great ash shadow their bent backs, the air around them richly scented with green smells—lavender wafting from the sensory garden, water from the lake at the park’s center. The lake is centripetal, drawing all the park dwellers to it. Mothers stroll babies around it. Schoolchildren, bright as wood ducks in Catholic school uniforms, race to it, scattering pomegranate seeds along its banks. Pub-crawlers, on a break from afternoon beer, meander toward it, humming half-remembered Christmas hymns. I follow the pub-crawlers down the rain-glistening lane to the lake, marveling at how the yews hold their leaves in winter, how lavender and bright orchids grow from bald stones in the sensory garden, how the Japanese pagoda trees leading to the lake look like tree houses for ghosts.  

The lake’s surface is as still and dark as the bottom of a tin can. White gulls float along its surface, while others puddle like melted snow across the mossy roof of a gazebo at the lake’s corner. A lone man stands beside a bridge that arches over an island at the lake’s center. Wraith-thin and whiskery, the man wears a dirty red flannel around his neck, and a ripe smell rises from his stained trousers. Holding a loaf of bakery bread under one arm, he tears off chunks, casting them toward a pair of swans that patrol the lake’s rim. He chants, “Come, Big Joe. Come, Old Joe,” though surely the small dull swan is female, mated forever to the majestic white one with the torn orange bill. Both swans lift their heads, their necks a graceful arabesque as they receive the bread. The seagulls bob in their wake, while a blue heron stands perfectly still on the lake island, blending with an elder bush, hunting fish.

The sun slips like a flaming pearl into a flannel pocket of clouds, and darkness arrives. A Garda polices the lanes on a white horse, ringing a tiny hand bell to signal the closing of the park. Mothers gather their children, and stroll through the gate nearest Grafton Street. The pub-crawlers follow. Only the lone man lingers by the lake. I stand back in shadow, watching him cast the last of his breadcrumbs over the water. Suddenly, the sky becomes literate with birds. As their wingtips brush the sky, I recall the final room of the Chester Beatty Library, the Book of the Dead opened to a drawing of a queen held up by two handmaidens before jackal-headed Osiris. According to the legend, the queen is waiting between worlds, witnessing the weighing of her own heart. If the heart is lighter than a feather, she’ll be allowed to pass safely into the afterlife.

My own heart rises as I watch the birds write living words across the sky. My chest aches pleasantly in the wet winter air, and I feel less brittle than I have in three years, when I began watching over my mother’s illness. I’ve been given a gift, a story made visible, lived, and felt. I’ll remember it, and it will remain a part of my own story while my mother waits between two worlds, long after she speaks her final words, long after she forgets herself.   

As the gulls drop, hanging themselves on the limbs of the trees on the lake island, the lone man turns on me suddenly. His entire face cinched around a slender cigarette, his eyes are two apple seeds in his withered face. He looks directly at me and says. “At least we’ve seen some ‘tin.’” I look over the lake. The gulls have settled on the surface. They sink halfway into the water, like candles slowly extinguishing themselves. I turn back, but the man is gone. Had he dissolved into the night air? Maybe he climbed inside one of those pagoda trees to sleep for the night? I’m completely alone in the park, a little afraid of getting locked inside. I head toward the Grafton Street Gate, toward the flower stalls brimming with bright sprigs of holly, toward the busker drumming and plucking his battered guitar, singing, “the weary world rejoices.” I race towards my husband. He waits for me. He's part of my past, present and future. He’s ready to offer me a bowl of soup.   

Susan Tekulve’s newest book is Second Shift: Essays (Del Sol Press, 2018). She is author of In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press, 2013), winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and a Gold IPPY Award. Her nonfiction, short stories and poems have appeared in journals such as The Georgia Review, The Louisville Review, and Shenandoah. Her web chapbook, Wash Day, appears in the Web Del Sol International Chapbook Series, and her story collection, My Mother’s War Stories, received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. Susan has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and she teaches in the BFA and MFA in Creative Writing Programs at Converse University in South Carolina.