The Boy and the Water Nymph

A Patchwork Fairy Tale: the one with the nymph, the apprentice, and the three dresses.

A young man who has no idea what to make of his life falls in love with a water nymph who will not leave her pool unless she has something better to wear than her water.

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  • Read the full transcript below:


[Gentle theme music]

Laura: Hi, you can call me Laura, I’m here to tell you a story if you like. You found one of my Patchwork Fairy Tales. This is the one with the nymph, the apprentice, and the three dresses.

[Music fades]

The Boy and the Water Nymph

Once upon a time a man lived in a pleasant little house with his partner and his three sons. His husband, being quite a bit older than him, had quite recently retired and had left his smithy in the capable hands of their eldest son. Knowing that two brothers working the same trade will most likely quarrel, the man had sent their second boy to his sister, to be apprenticed as a butcher. His sister, having no children herself, was very pleased with this arrangement and all was well.

But now their youngest son was coming of an age when one must really think of his employment and his fathers had no other family to apprentice him to. So they sat him down and asked him what it was he wanted to be. The boy was young and did not know. He did not really want to be anything, except free and merry.

“Well, you must find something you want to be,” his father told him. “Or I shall have to send you out into the world or pick a profession for you.”

The boy liked neither of these options, for he loved his fathers, his brothers, his aunt and his town. So he told his parents he would think hard and find something he’d want to be.

To this end the boy took to wandering across the countryside, deep in thought and counting all the things in life he had never liked and never wanted to do. They were many. Then he counted the things in life he did not see the sense or the use of doing. They were many too. And the things in life he was then left with just weren’t the kind of thing a man could support himself with.

So the boy’s reflections were not pleasant when he sank down on a grassy bank, overlooking a dark pool. And because they were not pleasant he was all too happy to be distracted by the way the last light shimmered on the gentle ripples of the water.

The air cooled and as the gloaming fell over the landscape, the boy stared into the dark water of the pool, imagining that he could see the other end of the world if he just stared long enough.

But circling ripples made him break his gaze. He looked up and saw the water stirring. From the dark depth figures were emerging. Shadows played tricks on the boy’s eyes, but he was sure he saw heads bobbing up from the water. He saw sleek black hair, rippling through the water and he could imagine that people had come up from the bottom of the pool and were now swimming away from him. He stared, not making a sound and saw one of the shapes turn away from the others and come towards him. It came closer and closer, until he saw that it was indeed a person. It was a girl and she did not see him. He was hidden in the shadows and he was so quiet that he wondered if he was even breathing.

The girl swam closer to the grassy bank, swirling her hair through the water, not paying much attention to anything.

Finally she was so close the boy could almost see her face. He saw an arched nose, a fine chin and one pale cheek, almost turned away. He ached to see her turn her back on him again and before he knew it he spoke:

“Excuse me, Miss, but I cannot look away.”

The water creature turned round with a splash and stared at him with large black eyes.

“Well then, if you cannot move your eyes, you might move your head,” she scolded.

The boy bowed his head but still looked at her, peering from behind dark hair and he grinned by way of excuse.

The nymph laughed and her laugh rung like pearls scattering on a marble floor, or something equally pretty.

The boy was already enchanted and as he started to talk and was repaid in kind he fell deeper in love than he’d ever thought possible. He dared not speak of that, of course, but he begged the nymph to allow him to come visit her again the next evening.

The nymph tossed her head and said: “You are free to come here again in the gloaming, whether I’ll be here is another matter.”

But she was there that next night. And the boy grinned and the nymph tossed her head and nothing was said of the night thereafter. But both were there that night and the next night, and the next. And the nymph’s sisters worried and the boy’s fathers did too, but both nymph and boy evaded their questions and silently grew starry-eyed and determinedly dreamy.

One night, lounging in the dark grass the boy talked of his village and of the fairs and markets where people wore flowers and danced together. “The others talked of taking their sweethearts there to buy them sweets and garlands, but I know that none of their sweethearts could ever hold a candle to you.”

The nymph did not answer.

“Would you not like to hear more about the fairs?” he asked.

“I have heard of your fairs often enough,” this nymph said. “My sisters have told me all there is to know.”

“How can your sisters know?” the boy demanded. “They cannot have been there themselves!”

“Of course they can, they have been there many times.”

The boy stared at her and his heart beat faster. “How?” he asked.

“We nymphs can live on the land,” the nymph said nonchalantly. “But only if we have clothes to wear.”

“How would you get clothes?” the boy asked.

The nymph giggled. “Some of my sisters steal them sometimes, from the girls that come swimming in the summer.”

“But not you?” he asked.

The nymph turned up her nose. “I do not know why anyone would want to wear clothes,” she said.

“What if they were fine clothes, like a lady’s?” the boy asked.

“No,” the nymph said.

“What if I brought them to you?” the boy pleaded.

The nymph looked at him. “Perhaps,” she said. “But how would you get fine clothes for a lady?”

The boy thought. He thought he might take one of his aunt’s dresses, but he was already too wise to speak that thought out loud.

“I could work and earn money and buy them for you,” he said.

“Money,” the nymph said contemptuously. “Money can buy anything. I wouldn’t want those clothes.”

The boy thought again. Never before had he found clothes important, but suddenly they seemed to him the most important thing in the world. He raised his head.

“I will learn to make them,” he spoke warmly. “I will go and ask the dressmaker to take me on as her apprentice and I will learn everything she can teach me until I can make clothes fine enough to dress you.”

The nymph smiled. That sounded like a proper way to get clothes. And like a proper way to work for a lady’s favour. Perhaps, she thought, he could do it. And perhaps, she could wait.

“Very well,” she answered. “If you bring me clothes that you made with your own hands and they are so fine that I would like to wear them, then I will leave my waters and dress myself and come with you.”

“And marry me?” he said.

The nymph laughed. “We shall see,” she said. But her eyes sparkled so that the boy thought he had a right to hope.

So the boy rushed home and told his fathers that he wanted to become a dressmaker. His fathers were too happy to question his motives or demand an explanation for his sudden decision. They hugged him and praised him and urged him to go see the dressmaker the very next morning.

That was exactly what he did and the dressmaker took him on as her apprentice. “You’re not known to be a hard worker, boy,” she said. “But I like your parents and I know your brothers are doing well now they are properly started out in life, so perhaps you’ll not be so bad yourself.”

“I won’t be, ma’am,” the brand new dressmaker’s apprentice beamed. “I’ll be the best apprentice you could wish for.”

The dressmaker laughed and shook her head, but as time passed she had to admit it was true. Her apprentice worked as hard as he possibly could. He worked and studied and practiced and he was a quick learner.

One thing the dressmaker noticed was that her apprentice seemed more keen on learning everything to do with finery than the workings of everyday sewing. Not that he did not work hard on the latter, but he seemed to be continually distracted by pretty little details.

One day she asked him: “Tell me boy, what is it about finery that seems to stir the fire in you so?”

The apprentice did not look up from his hands, but he hesitated mid seam.

“Are you wishing to make your aunt a present?” the old dressmaker asked, not being a stranger to young minds.

“No,” the apprentice said. “Not for my aunt.”

“For whom then?” the dressmaker pressed. “One of your brothers perhaps?”

Her apprentice looked at her and began to talk. He talked of this girl that wasn’t from around here but that he loved so dearly and how she had challenged him to bring her a dress that she’d love enough to put on and come with him to his village.

The dressmaker looked at her apprentice and saw the fire in the young man’s eyes. “Ah, what we won’t do for the ones we love,” she said. “Well, if that’s the way she wants it I’ll teach you everything I know. If you work hard, you can earn the use of your own fabric and make her a dress she’ll have to love.”

So the apprentice worked and the old dressmaker laughed and time flew.

Finally the apprentice rolled out a pink calico and confidently cut and basted and sewed until he had made a darling day dress. The dressmaker praised him and that evening the apprentice packed up the dress and went to the grassy bank by the dark pool and waited for his water nymph. She came and looked up at him in wonder when she saw the package he carried. The tailor’s apprentice beamed and showed her the dress.

The nymph stretched out a damp hand and stroked the smooth calico, felt the buttons and traced the neat seams. At last she looked up at him and said: “It is a nice dress, but I would rather wear my water.”

The dressmaker’s apprentice sighed and nodded, he did not protest and watched his love disappear back under water with a heavy heart. He left the dress on the grassy bank and returned home.

When her apprentice returned silent and grave, but without the dress, the old dressmaker did not ask any questions. She resumed work with her apprentice like the calico dress had never existed. And the apprentice worked even harder than before. He worked and worked until he had learned a lot more and had earned himself a finely spun wool cloth of a rich red-brown shade.

He cut the cloth and matched it with a red braid and made a delightful winter dress with skirts that near touched the ground. Again the dressmaker praised him and saw him off with the dress packed up and tucked under his arm.

This time the nymph was waiting for her dressmaker’s apprentice when he arrived. He smiled at her and she smiled at him. “See here,” he said quietly and he unwrapped the dress.

The nymph patted the soft wool and stroked the red braid and admired his skill, but once again she said: “It is a very nice dress, but I would rather wear my water.”

The apprentice looked so despondent the nymph begged him not to be so sad, but he would not answer her and this time she watched him go and disappear into the dark. Once again leaving the dress behind.

The old dressmaker wondered what kind of girl this could be, that her apprentice returned so sad and empty-handed. But she figured that if she wasn’t from round here, she must be from the city and city girls are unaccountable. Everybody knows that.

So she did not speak to her apprentice about it and neither did the apprentice speak of it to her. He worked and worked and worked, silent and determined.

Months passed and the dressmaker began to worry. Once she asked: “Will you not try your hand at a dress of your own again?” But the apprentice shook his head.

The dressmaker’s apprentice sewed and sewed and the people in the village began to praise his work. They could tell now what had been made by the mistress and what by the apprentice, not because of quality, but because of style. The young man had a good eye for cut and colour and the old dressmaker was very proud of him.

“Mistress,” the apprentice asked one evening. “Have I earned a few yards of that new blue silk you had shipped in?”

The old dressmaker looked at her apprentice and smiled. “Yes, I should say you have,” she said kindly.

So the dressmaker’s apprentice took down the roll of silk and started measuring. He did not go on his usual evening walk, he worked. He worked all through the night and he worked all the next day and he would have worked longer still, had the dressmaker not sent him to bed. The apprentice obeyed, but as soon as he woke he went back to work. He would hardly take time to eat and he would not go on his evening walks. He only worked.

Finally the dressmaker saw him lay down the garment he had been making and step away to admire it. It was beautiful. It was a flowing dress of light-blue silk with matching ribbons and trimmed with crisp white lace. The apprentice sighed and the dressmaker truly did not know what to say. So the apprentice packed up the dress, looked at the clock and hurriedly set off for the countryside.

The water of the dark pool was still. But when the boy came over the top of the bank he thought he heard a splash and in the moment he held still to listen he heard an urgent whisper: “He’s here! Go get her! He came!”

So he ran down to the grassy spot and sat down. He had hardly put down the packaged dress when he heard the water move. There was the nymph and she gulped when she came up and rested her arms on the bank. “You came back!” she said.

“I’ve brought you a dress,” he answered.

“I didn’t want you to stay away for it,” the nymph said unhappily.

“But I had to,” the apprentice said. “And don’t go telling me you do not want it any more, for I worked very hard on it.”

“Then show me,” the nymph said with a sigh.

So the dressmaker’s apprentice unwrapped the silk dress and swished it through the air and finally stretched it across his arms, holding it near the water. He would not let it touch the grass.

The nymph sighed and her eyes shone. “It’s beautiful,” she said. She caressed the fine silk and touched the lace and stroked the ribbons and looked up at her sweetheart and said: “It’s as beautiful as my shimmering water.”

“Will you take it then?” he asked.

“I will take it,” the nymph said, blushing. “Wrap it up and leave it here and go home to tell your family about me. If you do that I shall come to you three days from now.”

The apprentice’s heart leapt for joy. He grinned and beamed and took her by the hand and would have lifted her out of the water had the water not been stronger than he was. So he finally left her in the rippling pool and ran home all the way.

First he burst into his mistress’ office and talked so fast he conveyed nothing but the message of his apparent success. Then he galloped off to his parents’ house and told them he was going to be a marvellous dressmaker and moreover, he was going to be married to a girl from out of town.

His fathers were rather taken aback, but they tried very hard to understand their son and they could at least be in no doubt of his love for this girl, whoever she was. Their son told them he had finally convinced her to come to him and that she would arrive in three days’ time.

So the one father went to tell his sister and the other their two elder sons and they were all very surprised and all tried to question the dressmaker’s apprentice, but all they got for an answer was broad grins and expressions of nonsensical happiness. So there was nothing to do but wait.

And at last, after three days, the long expected bride appeared.

She was dressed in the silk gown the third son made for her and she carried a small chest that seemed almost wrecked with water damage. In it she carried her dowry. And a strange dowry it was. She brought no linens, pots or pans, and only two dresses. But that little chest was filled with jewellery and loose coins. Old and unpolished, but silver and gold all the same.

“How very generous of your family to give you such treasure,” the village girls said to the bride. “But how strange to give you only three dresses for your trousseau.”

“Well, three dresses were all I could bear to wait for,” answered the bride. “But one can always get more treasure, people lose theirs all the time.”

This was a little strange, but had the dressmaker’s apprentice not said that his bride was from the big city? And all kinds of strangeness was to be expected of city folk.

So the bride was welcomed into her bridegroom’s family with many smiles and congratulations. They all readily admitted she was lovely and one of his fathers remarked that she was a wonder at doing laundry, no stain held firm in her presence.

Six days after her arrival, the couple married. Not many people came out from the bride’s side. Only three older sisters came, almost crying, almost laughing and clad in garments that made some of the village girls frown uncertainly.

But it was a merry wedding nonetheless and a merry day, for the dressmaker’s apprentice married the love of his life.

And soon he was no longer an apprentice, for he learned fast. And his wife turned out quite the seamstress, with eyes so keen and hands so fine and such a taste for elegance and style. The old dressmaker was very pleased with them both, and secretly thought of them quite as her own. After all it was her trade that helped the boy win the girl’s love.

The young dressmaker and his young wife were very happy, very prosperous, and always excellently dressed, and thereby they managed not to become a warning against loving and hoping beyond what is considered reasonable.

[Theme music]


And with that last word stitching up the very last sentence, this story has its proper end.

Thank you so much for listening, lovely of you to stop by. If you want to listen to more of these, or find out about my other projects, check out You can also find me at which is full of folklore and urban fantasy.

There’s another tale to tell some other Wednesday but until then…

Keep iron in your pockets, show kindness to critters, and be safe~

[Music fades]

Image of the Patchwork Fairy Tale dragon from the podcast logo.

Copyright Laura Simons, please do not copy my stories without my permission, lest you insult the fae.

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