Drawing: A pottery water jar with a silhouette of a woman pouring water painted in white. Caption reads: "A silhouette of a woman pouring water."

Nymph short story by Iris Carden

My job at the museum was “exhibits co-ordinator”.  That didn’t mean I got to plan what exhibits were coming or going.  That was the work of the Director, who doubled as Curator.  No, my job was just to receive incoming and despatch outgoing exhibits, and to  display them in a way that would be attractive and interesting to the public.

When I wasn’t receiving, dispatching, or displaying, I was the general dogsbody.  I was available to assist any of the knowledgeable and important people who were my superiors.  Given how low I was on the ladder, almost everyone was my superior.

The vessel came as part of a visiting exhibit from a museum in Greece.  There were numerous beautiful and interesting things in the exhibit, but this was special. 

It was a pottery water jar.  Painted on it was the silhouette of a woman pouring water, from an almost identical jar.  She was exquisite.  She was perfect.  I was utterly fascinated.

Howard, the Museum Director came to see how the display looked.  I asked him who she was.  The exhibit catalogue had simply called her “woman pouring water”. 

She could be any woman, he’d said.  It was also possible she might be one of the naiades, the nymphs responsible for fountains and streams, springs and rivers, fresh water supplies. He said it wasn’t likely to be Daphne, as she was almost always portrayed in the process of being turned into a tree to escape Apollo, or Minthe who was turned into a mint plant.  Perhaps she was their sister Metope, who apparently lived a long life and gave birth to dozens of children.  Perhaps she was one of any number of lesser known water spirits or nymphs. Perhaps she was just a woman bringing home water from a well or stream.

Nymph, or woman bringing water home for the household, whoever she was, she fascinated me. Whatever work I was doing, I found myself finding reasons to come past her exhibit multiple times per day, just to look to admire, perhaps in another time it might have been said I worshipped her.

We had the exhibit at the museum for six months.  

In the first month we had a strange occurrence.

Overnight, a tap broke in the women’s toilets.  The water didn’t just pour down the drain, it sprayed outward, over the whole room, and a lot of water had sprayed before it was discovered and a plumber called.

Normally, water spreads out over a flat floor, flowing outwards, finding its own level. This time, the water did something utterly inexplicable. From the pool on the floor it formed itself into a stream, a stream with definite raised sides, although there was nothing to form a bank.  Instead of spreading out through nearby exhibits, the stream took itself on a journey across the floor, out to the front door, where it flattened. Water banked up in the stream behind the door, as the flatter stream continued out under the door, down the stairs, to the street, where it flowed into a stormwater drain.

How security failed to notice this phenomena during the night is beyond me.  

I was first in next morning.  As I opened the front door, the banked up stream flowed forward, still with invisible banks, but now at the same height as the water behind the door, and flowed its way into the drain. 

Plumbers came, and turned off the water. The stream played itself out, leaving behind a damp trail on the floor as the only evidence of what had happened. By the time the tap was fixed even that damp trail had dried.

I was convinced the woman on the water jar had somehow saved the museum from untold damage.  I told Howard of my thoughts.  He and I had both seen some unusual and barely believable things by this time, but he did not commit himself as to whether he believed it or not.  He did give me a warning, however, about how obsessed I seemed to have become with the woman. He told me there were numerous stories of water nymphs being dangerous and jealous.

His warning did not stop me visiting the woman regularly throughout the day.  It might not be overstating the matter to say I had fallen in love with her, and believing she had done so much for the museum had only made that love stronger.

One day, Gertrude, one of the important and knowledgable people above me, was too busy to take a break.  She sent me to get her lunch from the cafe.  As I returned to her office with it, I went past the visiting exhibit, and stopped to admire the woman on the water jar. I don’t know how long I had stood there, when Gertrude came up behind me.  She yelled. She berated. She had been waiting a ridiculous amount of time for her lunch.  Her coffee was cold.  I was useless.  She would talk to Howard and have me fired for my incompetence. I should get out of her sight. She could not stand to see someone as worthless as me.

The next morning brought news that shocked the whole museum.  Gertrude had died during the night, drowned in her own bath.

Howard found me, in my usual spot, staring at the woman.  I was torn between the love I held for her and the horror of what she may have done.

“Suppose you’re right.  Suppose it’s her,” he said. “It’s you she has a connection to.  It’s you she wants to protect.  That makes you the most powerful person in the museum right now.”

I didn’t quite know what he was getting at.

“What do you want?  What would make you so happy here that she doesn’t have to go out of her way to protect you?”

I thought a while.  I had come to this job straight from high school. I loved history and especially ancient history, but I hadn’t been able to study that, because I needed to work full time and support myself. I’d come from a home which was far from supportive or encouraging.

“I want to learn,” I said.  “I want to become one of the people who knows things, not just the person who does odd jobs.”

Howard smiled, nodded.  “I had planned to make you this offer anyway, although I was waiting until you’d finished your first year with us.  I know you have potential.  What if the museum could support you, arranged so you could study for a degree as part of your work with us, as ongoing training?”

“Is that possible?”

“If you are willing, we could look at degrees and courses which would fit with your work, that way we can give you more responsibility as you gain more knowledge in the field.”

I was enrolled in a museum studies degree, done externally, so I could fit the study around the work at the museum.  I was still responsible for receiving, despatching and displaying, but when I wasn’t doing that, I was learning. I learned formally through my degree, and informally through mentoring by Howard and other experts at the museum. 

My studies began before the exhibit moved to its next location.  I took my enrolment form, and then my first assignment to show the lady on the water jar.  I like to believe she approved.

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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