I. Prelude to a Dream

"Backward, flow backward, O tide of the years!
I am so weary of toil and of tears --
Toil without recompense, tears all in vain --
Take them and give me my childhood again!"
-- Elizabeth Akers Allen, Rock Me to Sleep

How old was she?

No one knew. At times she laughed and might have been a girl again, cheeks rosy with the promise of new dreams; other times she wept and might have outlived the mountains. She was old, and those who knew her called her Grandmother.

Where had she come from?

If there was such an origin, surely it couldn't matter. She drew people to her, called them with some half-heard voice. They met in run-down buildings and forgotten corners of the world, stayed with her for hours or days or weeks, and left with something close to peace. In a world of lies she was real, and that was enough. She was real, and through her presence she shared that solidity with them.

So tonight they huddled around her again, brimming with excitement. Grandmother watched them, the dim streetlights throwing warped shadows over her lined face. They had no idea that anything was different, that this night was unlike any other. Would she tell them?

"Grandmother, a story! A story!"

Yes, she would tell them. Because if not her, then who? Who was left?

Her eyes settled on the small crowd, finding the child that had spoken. Despite the wrinkles in her face, despite her wizened body, those eyes would always be young, and shocking. Eyes that held gold and blue before bleeding to copper near the edges: eyes with secrets, with pain. But the rest of her face was smiling, holding no trace of the sorrow that pulsed through her veins, nor of the weariness that had settled heavily on her; but she felt it, and knew that it was nearly time. There could be no more delays.

"So," she said, "You want a story."

"We always want a story," said the child. "It's why we come. It's why you tell us to come."

The old woman laughed, and for a fleeting instant she was beautiful.

"Come to me, child," she said, "Tell me your name."

Now he hesitated, looking around with wide blue eyes (eyes the color of summer skies, eyes that made her heart hurt), but it was too late for cowardice now. He stepped out of the group, left his fellow urchins behind to sit next to her. Together they made a pair of scarecrows, silver-haired woman and tow-headed boy.

"Hello, Grandmother," he said, "I'm Corey."

Another coincidence...if, she thought, there were coincidences, if this all wasn't one story. She touched his cheek.

"Will you take my place one day, Corey?" she said. The other children gasped, but Corey laughed, still high-strung with the innocence of childhood.

"You won't leave us, Grandmother," he said. "You've always been here."

"Everyone will leave you," she said. "We all leave, child. Never forget that. I'm no different. But when I leave, someone else must do my work. Will you tell my stories?"

His eyes studied her, appraising; his voice came out deeper, as though just these words had taken some of his childhood from him.

"Yeah," he said, "I will."

Was it too much to ask of a child? Probably. Would he do it? Without a doubt. She sighed, draping one arm around his bony shoulders.

"Good," she said. "Do you know who I am?"

"You?" he said, incredulous. "Everybody knows. You're Grandmother."

"Yes, but not always," she said. "Once I had another name."

A whisper of confusion ran through the children; they crawled closer, pulling at her clothes with thin fingers. They had heard countless stories, countless endings -- was this to be her story, at last? Would they be the first to know who she was?

"Another name," someone whispered. It drew her attention away from Corey, pulled her eyes back to the others.

"Yes," she said. "Once I was called Rain."

"Rain," Corey repeated. He yawned, exposing two missing teeth. "Rain."

She ruffled his dirty hair, overcome by exhaustion. They were only children. Did they know their fate, that all their wandering could never outsmart death? Did they know that they would die alone, afraid, that of all of them so few would be remembered? Did they know how cruel it would be when the world moved on?

Surely not; and she must tell them before she was through.

Come now, old fool, she thought, speak and be done with it. You've waited too long.

And she had; pain settled itself against her back, just between her sholder blades, a hurt she had lived with for countless years. She would have no other chance to unload her burden; tonight was to be her confession.

"Listen to me, children," she said, "Watch me, and taste my words."

"Taste?" Corey said.

"Taste - and feel, if you can. This is a story of life," she said. "Listening isn't enough. Feel it. All senses lead to the heart."

It was time.

Tear burned behind the storyteller's tricolored eyes, blurring the night into a medley of stained glass. Rowan and Oriole stepped from the shadows, too near to ignore but never close enough to touch, as they had been for years. She strained towards their memories, struck the barrier between them and trembled, let her spidery frame tremble with anguish. She was tired, so tired: she wanted to rest.

Not yet, something whispered. Not yet.

Oh, but I'm tired -- !

"Grandmother," one of the children prodded, "Are you going to tell us now?"

"Please," added another.

She stood, murmuring under her breath; they watched, mesmerized. Had they been able to make out the words, they might have thought it was a prayer

(Oriole make my words light and true Rowan give me strength)

but she was speaking to the dead, to friends fallen and left behind. It was a habit she would never part with, asking them for help -- but with luck, this would be the last time. With luck, this was the last time they would be apart.

Now, old fool: do what you must.

"You've come from your homes, from the streets. You've taken my stories to heart," she said. "But this story is more than the others can ever be. Listen, and remember." Her eyes cut to Corey, sharp gaze sliced by bronze lightning. "You must tell it again. Because it is my story, and it is truth."

She stood straighter, recaptured the gracefulness of her true youth; high color bloomed in her cheeks. The scars, hidden by her shirt, scalded the skin of her back, reminding her of a pain that had never really faded. Those eyes glowed with passion most of them would never know.

She said, "My name was Rain."

Grandmother spoke one last time, and they listened.