This is a photograph.
In this photograph, there is a statue of a woman. See the statue of a woman? Good.
In this photograph, there is also a painting of this statue of a woman. See the painting? See the statue in the painting? Good.
This is a story about a story within a story, and how a painting, and a statue, and a photograph, all came together to save a young girl’s life.***
This story starts with neither statue nor painting nor photograph, but the origins of the museum they were housed in. This museum currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts, and it is a famous art museum full of paintings and jewelry and photographs and artifacts and sculptures from all around the world throughout time. It is known as the Museum of Fine Arts, and when it was first built, the architect of the building was young and excited to shape each room so that it could house the best works all together. He spent a special amount of time on a particular room that he named the Burgundy Room. It was his favorite, he said, because it reminded him of the room he shared with his two sisters as a child.
The architect happened to be a triplet. No one would have cared about this fact usually. But during the construction of the museum, something terrible happened. One of the architect’s sisters was hit and killed by a train that winter. The architect did not show up to work for many days. When he finally did come back, he refused to do further work in the Burgundy Room. Furthermore, he had come back with a strange new rule. He did not want three of anything in one room, especially the Burgundy Room. If there were three paintings of Mary in one room, at least one had to be separated from the others. One day, the architect suddenly collapsed while on site. At his request, they brought him into the Burgundy Room one last time. As he stared up at the dome ceiling, the architect delivered his final words: “If you do not follow my rule, one of the three pieces will be forever destroyed. Forever.” And then with a final cough, he died.
For years the museum abode carefully by the architect’s dying wish. But as time went by, and more people filtered in the museum’s staff, and more people filtered out, the rule became something of an urban legend. The curators spoke of it every now and then during their coffee breaks. “The Architect’s wish,” they called the story, and smirked at the ridiculous nature of the request. “Just because he was a triplet,” they would say. “What nonsense.”
And then Nydia arrived.
She was made of pure white stone, and created by a young American who had spent many of his days crafting along the green and yellow countrysides of Italy during the 18th century. While many of the sculptor’s works were not worthy of travel, this one had come across the ocean to reside in the museum’s stone walls.
This is Nydia the sculpture:
She is a young girl, also known to the curators as the Blind Girl of Pompeii, who struggles to find her way out of the city as it burns and crumbles before her. Her dress clings to her. She clings onto her walking stick. A broken capital from a column leans against her feet. She puts her hand to her ear and listens for the safest route. At her core, she is in danger.
But the curators did not see these qualities in Nydia. Instead they saw her beauty. They saw her dress waving out behind her. They saw her youth and energy. And so she was placed in the Burgundy Room.
For years, almost forty years, the sculpture stood at the center of the Burgundy Room, and viewers tilted their heads at the beautiful and sad young lady with her eyes softly closed. For forty years, not a soul disturbed her distressed presence.
And then the painting came.
“How clever!” the curators said to each other when the museum took in the exquisite oil image. “The viewers will now see themselves as art! It’s brilliant!”
Of course, there was no other place for the painting but the Burgundy Room, for the painting had been set in the Burgundy Room. It depicted a woman in a white dress bent over her purse just behind Nydia the statue with all of the same paintings from the Burgundy Room around her.
The curators hung the painting up just behind Nydia, accordingly, and waited to be congratulated for their equally clever choice in location.
But when the painting was hung, not a single curator heard the soft whisper float about the room. For now there were two Nydias in the Burgundy Room. And there could not be three.
Because thousands of visitors saw the museum every week, sooner or later another Nydia was bound to enter the Burgundy Room. And only a few months later, another Nydia did come in.
This Nydia was in the shape of a girl, a live girl, who wore a long white dress and had beautiful hair the color of a pale sandy beach. She wandered away from her mother and into the Burgundy Room, where she was drawn right to the statue of her namesake.
But by the time her mother found the Burgundy Room, Nydia the girl was gone. Instead there was only Nydia the sculpture and Nydia the painting.
“How strange,” the girl’s mother said to herself as she gazed at the painting. For next to the woman bent over her purse was a little girl, who looked very much like Nydia, gazing up at the sculpture in the foreground.
If it had not been for Bernard the museum guard, the mother would have lost her Nydia forever. But Bernard was an old, old, old man. He had been working in the museum for many years. He well knew the curse of the architect. And he knew it was not just a legend.
“I can get her back,” he said, striding towards the mother. For now Nydia’s mother was crying as she looked closer at the little girl in the painting.
“She cannot move. She cannot get away! She’s trapped.” The mother sobbed.
“Wait one second,” Bernard said, and he returned with a bulky camera in his arm. “Stand back,” he told the mother. He pointed the lens toward the room, and, making sure to include the sculpted Nydia, the painted Nydia, and the little girl Nydia, he captured a photo.
“How is that going to help?” the mother cried.
“There cannot be three,” Bernard replied. “Over my years I’ve watched several things go. It’s always the middle piece. Always the one created between the others. But your daughter was born before the painting was made.”
“You’re not making any sense,” the mother said.
Bernard set the camera down, its screen still with the photograph on display. He stood back and pulled the mother with him. With some strain, he managed to turn their backs upon the room. When they turned again, the painting was gone.
“Ahhh!!!” The mother screamed and ran towards the wall, which now was just an empty space.
Bernard ran towards the camera and deleted his photo. Now the only Nydia left in the room was the sculpture.
“My baby, my baby!” the mother cried out.
“Mom?” a small voice said. Bernard and the mother looked over their shoulders to see Nydia, the little girl Nydia, walk into the room from the hallway.
“Oh thank goodness it’s you,” the mother said, and she swung her arms tight around her daughter, who stood stiffly in her mother’s embrace.
“You might want to leave the Burgundy Room,” Bernard said in a low voice. The mother did not need to be told again. She took her little Nydia far, far away from the room, all the way out the front entrance of the museum, and over to Fenway Park.
After their steps had long since faded away, the guard turned out to the hall.
“Must be around here somewhere,” he muttered, glancing in all the rooms. At last he found the painting squeezed tight into a corner between the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
He held the painting out in front of him and grinned as he gazed at the figures within. There was little Nydia, still in the front wearing her plain white dress. She was standing next to Nydia, the schoolteacher, bent over her bag. Another Nydia was studying an artwork beside the statue, and two more Nydias looked upon works in the back.
The rule of three had turned out to be the best thing Bernard had ever hoped for. He could not remember a time when collecting souls had been so easy. Thank goodness for the architect, he thought as he hung the painting back up in the Burgundy Room. Thank goodness for the curse.
***While the sculpture, painting, and photograph may have saved the young girl’s life, they also stole her soul. That is the nature of curses, unfortunately.