Drawing: A gold urn with a winged dragon on it. Caption reads: "It should not have been there."

Dragon short story by Iris Carden

I was getting out the old Sea Turtle exhibit.  It had been in storage for years while its space was given to visiting exhibits.

I opened boxes, and carefully unwrapped items. There were things in there I hadn’t seen since visiting the museum as a child.  It was definitely time a new generation got to see the lifecycle of the sea turtle, in the amazing models that let you see inside a turtle nest as babies hatched, follow them around the room, as suspended from the ceiling by fishing line, the babies went out to sea and faced predators. Following on, those who survived grew big enough that predators wouldn’t bother them, and eventually they were mature enough to come back to nest on the warm beach sands. 

All the bits of the display were there, and I was revisiting a wonder from my childhood, when I opened a small box.  It wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t belong in the exhibit.

It was a gold-coloured metal vessel. It looked like the type of urn used to hold someone’s ashes. It had a picture of a flying dragon on it. 

I didn’t know what it was, or where it belonged, but it had nothing to do with the life cycle of a leatherback turtle.

I took it to the musem director’s office.

Howard said he’d never seen it before, and he didn’t know why it had been with the turtle exhibit.  He told me to check the catalogue records. He said it looked Chinese and he was pretty sure it was actually gold, if that helped with the search.

I went searching through the records. There was no gold Chinese artefact in the records at all. I went back to Howard with my fruitless search.

Well, it had to have come from somewhere, he said.  My boss knows how to state the obvious.

He sent me to Griffith University to find someone in the archaeology department to help me. 

Dr Hector Chan made the time to look at what I was carrying.  

“This shouldn’t exist,” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant.  

“This motif here,” he pointed, “has only appeared on artefacts a thousand years old or less, but your dragon has wings.  Winged dragons date back more than two thousand years.  Since then, dragons have been long, snake-like creatures, with legs and feet, but no wings. I can’t date this. I can’t place it anywhere.  No artefacts we have ever seen have winged dragons combined with the motifs on this urn.  It appears to be gold, and that dragon’s eye looks like ruby, but we’d have to do tests to be sure.  It would have taken a fair amount of wealth to produce something like this.  Where did the museum acquire it?”

I explained how it had simply been in the museum’s storage, packed with another exhibit, and how I’d not been able to find it on the catalogue.”

“It could be a hoax,” he said.  Someone has been able to infiltrate museum security to hide a fake item among stored exhibits.”

I didn’t buy that.  Security might not be obvious to museum visitors, but it was there, and it was thorough, and it was hard to get to the exhibits storage area. 

Dr Chan did the thing neither Howard nor I had done. 

He lifted the lid.  It was filled with what appeared to be ash.  

“We could have this ash tested?  It may be possible to identify what was burnt to produce it, if it is indeed ash, and perhaps even have it carbon dated? Would the museum bear the cost?”

I stammered that I didn’t have the authority to agree to that.  I would check with Howard and get back to him.

“I will take a small sample, in case your boss approves, if I may,” he said.

It was just ash.  I said that was fine.  

He went to a cupboard at the back of his office and took out a small sample jar, and what looked like a miniature teaspoon.

“I won’t need much,” he said.

He opened the jar and set it beside the urn, then dipped the tiny spoon into the ash.  

As soon as the ash was disturbed, it began to swirl up and into the air, as if drawn up by a miniature cyclone. 

We both stepped back, and stared at it.  I had the presence of mind to dig in my handbag for my phone so I could video what was happening.  

The swirling ash moved higher and higher, then, when the urn was empty, it changed shape in front of us, forming itself into the shape of the dragon image on the front of the urn.  

The dragon turned in the air, following the same direction as the ash had swirled, then with a lazy flap of its leathery wings, it flew through the window, smashing it, and out into the afternoon sky over Brisbane.

We looked at the urn, and saw the dragon image was no longer on the golden surface, and no ash was left inside.

“Where will it go? Do you think it will come back?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m having trouble believing what I just saw.”

I called Howard.  He didn’t believe what happened either.  He asked me to send him the video, and asked me to wait for him to join us.

While we waited, Dr Chen pulled books off shelves, and flicked through pages.  He looked at sites online. He sent photos of the urn, and a copy of my video to other experts, and asked if they knew what was happening.

One of them sent back to him a file from an oral history project.  It was in Chinese, but Dr Chen translated the gist of it for me. A ninety-seven year old lady from a rural village told the story of how, when she was a small girl, her father found a golden urn with  a winged dragon on it.  When her father opened the urn, a dragon made of dust or ash flew out, and came back later in the day.  The next day a man who was known to be thief was found dead with burns all over his body.  Everyone in the village who heard the story was sure the dragon had killed the thief.

Dr Chen explained dragons were good luck, forces for good, so villagers could easily believe a dragon would act to protect them from a thief.

Howard arrived, and we told him the whole story again. 

Dr Chen emphasised that this artefact didn’t belong in any known time or place in history, and that we had no explanation for the phenomena, other than an old woman’s story in an oral history project.

We sat, looking at the golden urn, not knowing what to do.  Howard decided coffee might help, although he really wanted something stronger.  Dr Chen gave him directions to a coffee shop on campus. When he returned with coffee for all of us, we were still just sitting there, looking at an empty golden urn.

We drank coffee in silence.

The ash dragon flew back in through the window, turned around several times, eventually turning back into the spiralling ash, which settled back in the urn.

I caught it on video again. 

Dr Chen closed the lid of the urn.

“Hey,” I said, “The dragon’s back.”

“I know, I saw it come back,” Howard said.

“No, I mean the one on the urn, not the one in it.”

There it was, the golden dragon on the front of the urn, completing the design that should not exist.

“I don’t know what tests it’s safe to do on this,” Dr Chen said, eventually.  

“It’s definitely not going on display in the museum,” Howard said.

Howard carefully put the urn back in its wooden storage box.  We each drove back to the museum.  In the car, I listened to the local radio news.  A man had been found dead with fourth degree burns, burns that went through all layers of skin through to underlying tissue.  Police said the man had an extensive record for violent crimes.

The urn was secured, boxed, is in the safe in Howard’s office. A week later it was gone, although security cameras showed no sign of anyone entering the office.

Dr Chen tried to publish an article about the urn, and even with the videos and photos, and with the oral history, it was rejected as being fabricated.  He lost a great deal of credibility and has been struggling to regain his academic reputation.  

The three of us get together occasionally, to talk about what we saw.  No-one else believes it happened.

Museum Stories

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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