The Tale of Rachel And Her Knight In Shining Armor

A shy and stuttering man is inspired by Messiah and learns the courage to rescue the woman he loves.

One

We promise ourselves many things at the tender age of six, as we look at a world that seems endless and full of opportunity for some. For others, it is a dark and confining sphere, made small by the choking grip of poverty or fear or ignorance. It is a rare person who can look up from a bleak life and see the vast dazzling array of stars: a billion pricks of light, each a glorious opportunity. The rest of us wrap ourselves in houses that shield us, possessions and money that hopefully comfort us, and a mindless conformity that helps us look like everyone else; finding safety as a drop in a stagnant sea of mediocrity. The wonder of the six-year-old is her ability to see the stars between the dark clouds, when older and more experienced people are indoors, hiding from the coming storm.

On the night of her sixth birthday, a young girl named Rachel climbed the white-washed trellis of her families home, sat cross-legged on asphalt shingles worn black with countless rains and snows, and gazed up in wonder at the majestic spray of God's creation. Then, she uttered her first true prayer.

Rachel lived in a typical home, built of wood and brick and stucco, the eaves and ledges peeling away to reveal gray weathering and neglect. The same could be said of for the people within: typical, gray, neglected. Rachel's father was a man of business, full of strict planning and pointless toil, exerting great energies with only money in mind. The light of the television flashing in the darkened "family" room cast a ghastly pallor on the man, making him look more sinister than his thoughtlessness actually was. His evening plan was simple: dinner, television, then bed. The schedule had only been mildly interrupted with the occasion of Rachel gaining another year. The typical song had been sung and the regular cake had been served, which Father took his piece with him to his chair before the television. He never saw or heard Rachel's reaction to her gift, which was a rather typical doll in a frilly dress. She had wanted ballet slippers, but her father had not taken the time to look for them. He had come up with several reasons why a doll was a better gift than slippers, but such reasonings were not required, for if Rachel's six years had taught her anything, it had taught her to be grateful for anything she received because it might be a terribly long wait until she got something she actually wanted. Rachel found some solace in the fact that her birthday celebration, along with nearly everything else in her life, was typical.

The only notable present came from Rachel's maternal grandmother, who she called Jo. Unlike Rachel's immediate family members, Gramma Jo was a burst of colors who filled the kitchen as she swept through the back door and embraced her daughter. Pulling away only a little, Jo grasped Rachel's mother, hands cradling each cheek. The older woman looked deep into the eyes of her daughter and it seemed that some of Jo's virtue invaded her frame. Rachel's mother shivered and gasped, turning away from something she had once felt but given away long ago. Color and laughter and purpose and desire still boiled in her eyes but she blinked the irritant away: those were things that she could not afford now as the wife of a hollow and uninspired man. Jo's presence always pained her, not because Rachel's mother regretted her marriage, but because she had become like her husband, leery of the passionate. The younger woman pulled away and drew into herself, while her mother extended her hands in a perpetual offer. The look said, 'Come and be something special,' but Rachel's mother wanted no part of that. She knew that desires and drives opened one up especially to disappointments and heartaches. For her, it was better and safer to be mild and uneventful; better to subvert joy and life, thus blunting the pain of tragedy and death. Jo slowly brought her hands back to herself with a sorrowful look for what could have been.

Already, the other children had scattered from the grandmother that their father called a siren. 'She is an alluring one,' he would say, 'but she will steer you into dangerous paths.' Rachel's father preached instead prudence and the safest course: public schooling, college, a steady profession in an established field, and a good income that can buy convenience and security. The older children were well indoctrinated, some already reaping the fruits of their labor in stereo systems, jewelry, nice clothes, and even a car for the oldest. Father had done his job well, except for one.

Jo finally turned her full attention to the object of her visit and Rachel ran into her grandmother's arms. The same penetrating gaze was applied on the little girl as her mother, but Rachel basked in it as though it was the nectar of life itself pouring through her. They held each other for a long time, drawing strength and life from one another. Rachel buried her face in Jo's hair and enjoyed the comforting smell. It was not the distillation of flowers or herbs, but was the essence of one who had been many places and acquired the peculiar odors of exotic peoples. Jo could have been anywhere, doing anything, yet she chose to be with Rachel on her birthday.

Rachel turned her head away from her grandmother, looking in the direction of television and her father. Jo also looked that way and they shared the same thought: could they get away without confronting him? The two faced each other and Rachel put a finger to her lips and Jo drew hers together in a tight, hard line, totally silent. They tiptoed to the back door, pausing only to long enough to wave good-bye to Mother, who was chewing her nail and wondering what she would tell her husband when he found Rachel gone. She need not have worried, for by the time Father lumbered into the kitchen for more cake, the magic of Jo had long dispersed, and he barely remembered he even had a youngest daughter.

It was terribly dark, which only made the theatre look bigger. Built on the traditional three levels, Rachel could just make out the massive chandeliers sparkling like tiny, muffled stars above her. Jo moved slowly and without comment, holding her granddaughter's hand loosely, giving her every opportunity to stop and look about. There were wisps of people scattered in the sea of chairs, like a few ghosts haunting the darker corners of the almost completely empty hall. It began to show its age, but it was still obvious that the age that had produced this edifice knew about beauty. The carvings were rich and intricate, the tapestries lining the walls were heavy and busy with medieval art, and the floors were of fine wood covered down the center of each aisle with a luscious swath of red carpet. They softly shuffled on, making their way to the front seats, gawking at the wonders about them. For Rachel, this was a glorious new world, but for Jo, it only confirmed that much of beauty was passing from the world she had know; unappreciated, ignored, and finally left to decay and rot. But, the old woman assured herself, it would not pass away completely before she shared it with someone who could appreciate it, or so she hoped.

Jo prayed again that her premonitions were correct that Rachel, though still terribly young, would understand this gift and find joy in it. The grandmother had gradually given up hope on her other descendants, each showing an annoying practicality that saw little value and bore no interest in art or music or poetry or love or beauty. If these could not be produced in mass and at a sizable profit, it was not worth pursuing: such were the workings of mind that those who had themselves been mass-produced by a society bent on consumption and greed. But, as she looked down on Rachel, Jo saw a girl who was possessed of a different spirit, more apt toward seeing the world as a wonderful place to experience life and learn, rather than a pile of resources to be bought low and sold high. Jo smiled broadly as she sat down in a worn seat, watching the girl turn round and round slowly drinking in these surroundings. 'Finally,' the old woman sighed to herself, 'a kindred spirit!'

Rachel had thought it was dark before, but the cornices of light dimmed and the players, for the lack of a more fitting name, entered the stage. A beautiful young woman came to the fore, curtsied to the largely empty chairs, thanked everyone for coming, and announced that the tale tonight would be "The Sculptor and the Street Girl."

''Once upon a time, there was a man that dreamt of being a great and successful sculptor. He had been taught as a boy that God would answer prayers if you really wanted something and it was something very good, so he prayed that God would make him a sculptor and everyone would want his sculptures. Not very much time passed and his prayer was answered: people couldn't resist the urge to buy the pieces he made and would offer great sums of money for work that he hadn't even finished yet!''

Rachel giggled harder and harder as one man on stage took imaginary chisel and hammer in hand and 'sculpted' the postures of other players, twisting them with hammer blows into curious shapes. The man was dancing about his creations while he told his tale about the joys of his work and how everyone wanted them. His revelry was interrupted often by other players, who would flit about the 'sculptures' and haggle with the man over price. An agreement made, the buyer would drag the 'sculpture' out of the lit center of the stage into darkness, just in time for another 'buyer' to begin fawning over another piece. One strong man even hefted away a small woman who had been shaped in to what looked like a human pretzel! Rachel burst out in laughter as the woman's eyes grew wide as she held her frozen pose while being carried away.

''The sculptor had a number of good years and became quite wealthy. He eventually built himself a nice gallery filled with his work. But, as always seems to happen, people became enamored of someone else and soon, no one wanted his sculptures anymore. He kept waiting for the next art collector to come into his gallery and rediscover his work, but no one did. Common people would come and gawk, but few would ever buy.''

''At first, the sculptor was terribly sad, but then he remembered praying to God for success and he became very angry and cursed God for not answering his prayer. Life went on though, and he couldn't stay angry forever, so he grew cold and hard and disbelieving. Then, he could only grow older.''

Jo's eyes teared as the tale took on a bitter tone. Moving dejectedly among his sculptures, the man seemed to move slower and slower and he grew more bent. The grandmother thought of how angry she could become when others chastised her for being so unproductive and seemingly carefree, being only a simple story-teller herself. What she had always thought to be an inspiring blessing for others seemed a noxious curse to so many people around her. If she wasn't making money in some business venture, she was not doing anything of worth. Sometimes she even thought it might be better to try and be like others, but any effort that way just made her more miserable. She was what she was. Jo saw in this man on-stage a feeling that often crept into her own soul: a numbing chill of rejection from her fellow man, and even a defiance against those who misunderstood her. The grandmother looked at Rachel again, whose eyes were riveted on the man, perhaps thinking parallels of her own.

''One day, into the old sculptor's gallery drifted a bedraggled street girl, who wandered about the sculptures, eyeing them strangely. The old man's first impulse was to throw her out, for she obviously had no money. 'But, it was a cold day outside,' the old man said to himself, 'and she has few clothes as it is.' He left her to her exploration and noticed her finally leaving hours later.''

''The next day, she came again, not long after he unlocked his doors, and wound her way among the stony figures while the sculptor busied himself elsewhere. It was going on evening when the old man found the girl still wandering about the place, not even leaving long enough to eat. Something pricked his old heart and quickly made a stew and brought her a bowl, which she scowled at for a few moments in mistrust and then, hunger overtaking her, she devoured as if she hadn't eaten in weeks. The sculptor felt another twang in his heart as the girl reluctantly went out the front door and the old man locked the gallery fast behind her, shutting out a chill wind that almost knocked the already-shivering girl off her feet.''

As she watched the woman in the street girl's role hold herself close and shake as she slowly passed out of the stage-light, Rachel was reminded of a girl in her kindergarten class who wore faded clothes that were too big for her. Many of the children at school made nasty remarks to the girl, making her the brunt of jokes, and going out of their way to exclude her from their play. Sometimes, Rachel herself would join in with the crowd, for once happy to have someone else be the 'different' one. Guilt welled up within her as the player in the role of the sculptor continued his tale in a remorseful attitude.

''The next morning, the street girl was there leaning on the door, as the man hurriedly unlocked the door to the gallery. She stumbled inside, no longer shaking, but collapsing like a rag doll on the floor. Cursing himself for letting her leave the night before, he picked her up and took her to a cot in the back room, covering her with blankets. He carefully touched the tip of her nose and her fingertips, which were already a little ashen from the cold, and cursed himself again for being so hard-hearted before. He said to himself, 'This girl has so little and I have so much. I keep this gallery heated at night for cold, dead stone, but I didn't even let a living girl share the warmth.' Then that feeling in his heart came as a stab as he realized how blessed he really was and how angrily he had cursed God for not blessing him even more. The old man started to weep.''

Rachel and her grandmother turned toward each other and each saw tears streaming down the other's face. The girl put her hand into Jo's and the woman squeezed softly as they looked back to the stage. The woman who played the street girl opened her eyes, looked at the two figures on the front row, smiled at their tears, and then looked up at the player stooped over her. "Why do you cry?" she asked him.

''The old man wiped his tears quickly and touched his hand to her cold cheek. He explained that he was a foolish man who had a wonderful gift from God and got mad when he didn't get more. The girl raised up on an elbow and simply asked, 'Why not tell God you are sorry?' The sculptor blinked, then nodded, and promised her that he would. Then, he told her about how much God loved them both and had sent his Son to die so that they could go to Heaven, which was a wonderful place. The girl laid back on the cot, sighed, and simply nodded. 'Do you think,' she asked quietly, 'that a street girl can go to heaven?' He choked back a tear and said that she definitely could. She smiled weakly, then gave a little yawn, closed her eyes, and never woke again.''

The man on-stage shook the hand of the woman beneath him, but it was limp and fell with a sick thud as he brought his own hands to his face and wept anew. A moment later, he raised his eyes heavenward and asked, "Can a sorrowful old man be forgiven?"

With that, the stage-lights dimmed and the man took the hand of the limp woman and helped her to her feet. They came forward, along with the other players, and as the lights brightened, they bowed or curtsied to the audience.

It was deathly still and Jo nervously looked about her. Before, there had been a smattering of people in the hall, but now she and Rachel were alone in the rows of seats. Suddenly, she realized that the players were bowing and no one was applauding! She turned red and began slapping her hands together so loudly that they stung. Rachel quickly caught on and did the same. The players beamed with the reception of their work, as if they had not had such a salute in some time.

In a moment, the players faded back out of the light, save one man that took a step forward, bowed low, and announced the next tale. Rachel knew no better, but a theatre-goer in our country would be struck by the simplicity of this variant of the art. It was known only as the penny theatre, the name coming from the fact that, traditionally, the admission to these performances was only a penny. For centuries, this had been the main entertainment of the lower classes of Rachel's country.

The dress of the players was sparkling and beautiful, but no attempt was made to costume themselves to play a particular role. A girl might be a tree, a rabbit, and an ugly sorceress in one night and in the same dress. The tales were entirely portrayed in movement and dialogue. Props were nonexistent as players either took the role of street-lights and alley-cats or simply interacted with objects that couldn't be seen.

This form of theater is particular to the region in which Rachel and her family lived, though like so much else, it was being devoured by more universal diversions like television plots and movie scripts. This was the last troupe of its kind in the city, which was the largest thereabouts. It might also be obvious by the size of the assembled audience that, like the sculptor in the tale, the penny theatre was a dying forum for a forgotten and neglected art. But Rachel didn't care: for her, it was fresh and new, and she loved it!

A normal performance might last an hour and a half, comprised of four or five tales picked from a repertoire. This night was to be different as the players heard the little girl shout out about how wonderful a birthday present this was. Between the third and fourth tale, it was quickly decided to present a few extra tales, which they thought would appeal to a little girl. Besides the first tale, there was one about a pirate's duel, another about radishes, and even one about a man who could make it snow, even in summer. Some were sad, some were silly, but all had a morale, spoken or unspoken. Rachel was simply enthralled for nearly three hours! Jo occasionally yawned and even caught herself napping once, but whenever she glanced at the young girl beside her, there wasn't the slightest sign of weariness and her face was aglow with fascination and joy.

Fifth on the roster of tales for the evening was a story of a maiden imprisoned by a wicked man. After years of waiting, the maiden had almost given up hope that she would have her greatest wish: she would be rescued by a courageous knight, whisking her away to a wonderful place full of happiness and joy. One day, The maiden's wish came true when a handsome, strong man saw the beautiful girl, loved her, and took her to his mighty castle where the wicked man could never find her.

Rachel watched all of this and saw herself as the beautiful girl in the grip of the wicked man who was her father. With all her heart, she wanted someone to care enough to take her away, someone in bright armor that would put off her father's pursuit. She wanted a knight in shining armor.

The little girl seemed to have her eye drawn most to one particular woman, who had hair of sparkling gold and was a little shorter than the rest, just like Rachel. In spite of her concentration on the performances, the woman noticed the special attention she was drawing and seemed very pleased by it. Rachel watched as the woman, as gracefully as water running down a hill, painted designs on a imaginary wall rising up on her tip-toes to reach something high, and bending a knee and puling a long graceful curl of hair from her face as she picked up something unseen from the ground. Every movement was a intricate dance all its own, soft and fluid. Some of the others grimaced at the complex moves, but this woman flowed through everything with a relaxed grace and when she could spare a glance, the woman looked toward the little birthday girl in the audience. She couldn't help but find joy in this special young girl that fell so quickly and willingly under the spell of the penny theatre.

After the exhausted troupe finished their telling of the eighth tale, Rachel clapped and shouted "Bravo!" just as exuberantly as ever, but Jo yawned and stretched and looked with worry at her watch. Though weary, the troupe beckoned them to come up on stage. The group sang a hearty rendition of "Happy Birthday" to the girl and shook hands with the grandmother. Rachel ignored the offered hand of a young man and hugged him instead, telling him excitedly what scene of his she liked best. He was a little taken aback by the praise that he rarely got! The girl hugged each player in turn and told each the distinctive part she enjoyed about their performance. The members of the troupe were very impressed by this girl, especially their leader, who Rachel had watched so intently. Her embrace was particularly long with the small, flaxen haired woman, who even gave her a kiss and wished her another soft "happy birthday." Rachel looked into those smiling eyes and asked for her name. 'Beatrice,' the woman said softly. Rachel smiled her best smile and said, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you, Beatrice!" The woman blushed suddenly, caught by surprise. When she recovered, Beatrice gave the girl a last kiss on the forehead and asked if they could come visit again. Rachel almost exploded with excitement as she turned to Jo and mouthed, 'could we?' the older woman opened her mouth wanting to say yes, but snapped it shut, her eyes growing large. 'Perhaps,' she finally managed, though she was worried if she would ever be able to have Rachel again after keeping her out so late and without her father's permission.

Eventually. Jo had to drag Rachel out of the theatre, the girl babbling almost constantly about wanting to learn to dance like that and she kept turning around to shout 'Good Night!' to the troupe and to look again at Beatrice, who she thought was the most beautiful woman in the world.

The troupe was making its way back onto stage to clean up for the night, but their leader kept turning back with a strange smile and looking with wonder at the little girl, hoping deeply that she would see her again.

They were fortunate that night, for Father had gone to bed after his sitcoms were over and never even noticed Rachel's absence. The girl's mother was of no concern to Jo and Rachel was soon in her bed, too excited to sleep, listening to the women speaking in whispers in the kitchen.

Outside of the window of Rachel's room, the trellis groaned slightly as the girl shifted her weight onto it. A year ago, she thought nothing of climbing up and down the thin, wooden matrix, for she was very light and agile. Now, she moved slowly and carefully because, though she was very quick and capable, she was a little heavier and a little wiser now since the latticework would soon no longer hold her. But, on this blessed night, which she would remember and treasure for the rest of her life, the trellis only creaked a little as she made her way upward.

The usual dread hit Rachel as she gripped the edge of the roof and hoisted herself onto it, striking the rusty gutter as she went. What if this was the night her parents caught her on the roof? She shivered to think of the alarm system her father would install or perhaps the psychological test they might subject her to. Already she had been to one counselor because her father thought she was "not normal." The interview had been conducted by a sparkly-eyed woman who seemed to understand the girl and, though she didn't say so, knew that the problem lay in this close-minded father. Next time, the person conducting the tests might not be so kindly. Rachel knew a boy in kindergarten who sat limp in his chair and hardly looked alive because the teacher gave him pills to cure his "being overactive." Sometimes, she heard the teacher telling her aides that those pills might "help" Rachel, too. The little girl shuddered at the thought.

Scooting herself over to her favorite spot, Rachel drew her knees in close against the early autumn chill. Throwing her chin high, she looked with wonder on the great canopy of glittering stars. The cooler air made them glisten the more and the girl let her gaze run along the brighter band of light that ran from horizon to horizon: the Milky Way. Like a shining bow, it held the bowl of stars close, enclosing the beautiful place that was the known world to a six-year-old. Rachel looked out across the other roofs that stretched on for miles and miles, but to the west, the roofs gave out to tall, lit beacons of buildings, some she had been in and recognized. She frowned just a little, denied a view of a short structure, the aging building that housed the glorious penny theatre. It was only a momentary sadness, for that was not the purpose for braving the climb to the roof. She had come to talk to God.

Now, some may say that a six-year-old doesn't do things or think things like this, and I suppose that would be true for most. But her grandmother was correct: Rachel is a very special child. She thought deeply and noticed things that others would miss or discount as foolishness. She listened to adults talking and learned to understand their curious ways very young. That youth also helped her to remain outside the harsh shell that experience builds around adults, so she could think deep thoughts and dream deep dreams and believe that nothing was beyond her grasp.

As for God, Rachel didn't mention Him much at home, for Father disbelieved and Mother lacked the faith. All the things they had amassed in their lives were the products of rigorous labor and pursuit. God didn't enter into that equation for her father, who had a rough childhood and had love and piety denied him as a boy. If there was a God, he told her once, He didn't care about suffering, so why should anyone care about Him. Rachel's mother, who grew up in the Christian home of Jo, had her tiny light of hope and faith smothered by her domineering spouse and now believed that she was of no consequence to the Supreme Being. Rachel knew otherwise.

God often starts with small things, tiny miracles that could easily be coincidence: a tiny piece of the puzzle that just falls into place and bring everything together, a small babe in a manger who saves mankind, or a little person that others easily forget who ultimately blesses the lives of hundreds with hope and courage. In one thing, Rachel's parents gave her a great gift: the humiliation of being lowly. She was the last of five children with a father capable of feeling real concern, much less love, for only one or two, and a mother who was so gripped with self-pity and her domestic toil that a child was often only another dirty plate to wash or another set of clothes to launder. In her family, Rachel was less than nothing, she was a choking liability -- the "surprise" birth in a family already unwilling to accept the nurture of four children. So, when the young girl turned to God and His little miracles, those miracles seemed so obvious to a child that was accustomed to far smaller gifts and attention. When Rachel gazed at the Milky Way as it passed over her roof, she knew that it was the path that ran through God's precious garden and that she was a little flower that He had His eye on. This He could work with!

So, peering at the grand expanse of Heaven, not sure which star God was visiting at the moment, Rachel offered up her prayer.

''Dear Father in Heaven.''

''If you aren't too busy, and if it is okay with you, when I grow up, I want to be a player on the stage of that penny theatre, just like Beatrice.''

''Oh, and if I am not asking too much, please send my knight in shining armor to rescue me.''

''Amen.''

In her mind's eye, God paused on His stroll through the garden, smiled warmly at her sincerity, and made careful note on His list "of things to do," then he continued on his way. For Rachel, the matter was settled and sometime soon, her prayer would be answered.

Two

The evening sun sent its rays slanting into the otherwise darkened cavern of a room. During the light of mid-day, it was loud and boisterous within, smelling of the perspiration of dozens of bodies moving to loud music and the clapping hands of instructors busily counting out the beats for those unfortunate souls that couldn't feel the rhythms within themselves. It was a squat, low building of rough cinder block, painted a ghastly gray throughout, ugly and utilitarian, ignoring its place as a last outpost of art. Now, the late afternoon shafts of red-gold light stood out in the dusty air, giving the now silent space a new hue. The classes in dance, such as they were, had ended for the day, and all was empty, except for one figure that seemed frozen in the azure light, caught in an odd position. All was deathly still and lone, or so the figure thought.

Just out of vision, a young man stood, looking at the frozen figure curiously. She remained still but tried in vain to move just a fraction and see the intruder that she could sense looking at her, but the still-reddening rays of the lowering sun made her squint and she could only see a still shadow. The young man cleared his throat to hopefully catch her attention, but she was practicing now and refused to be disturbed enough to move even a little.

"I-I h-hope I'm n-not b-bothering y-you," the young man managed through a stutter. He waited a moment for some action to show that she heard him, but there was none. He took a timid step forward and his hand came forward as well, shaking so hard that he quickly jerked it back behind him. In his other hand, he held a worn push-broom and brought that into view. "I-I am the j-j-janitor h-here." The effort in trying not to stumble in his words seemed to make him stumble in other ways and he half-spun and slapped a shoe flatly on the dusty floor to keep himself erect. All of this only elicited a slight raise of an eyebrow from the barely-breathing statuette.

He took another halting step forward, as if his malady of tongue also infected his legs. "I-I w-w-watch you...," but that was all he managed as he stepped awkwardly into the jet-blast of light and was caught unaware and temporarily blinded. When he blinked the surprise and discomfiture away, all he could see were the swirling dust particles that caught the light from her sudden exit. He looked about, but she had noiselessly slipped away, leaving him in slack-jawed wonderment.

Robert was indeed the janitor in the dance hall as well as the rest of the building and a few others nearby. It was something he did as part of an organization for handicapped people in the city and the meager pay he received helped keep him in his simple clothes and a group home with much less-capable people. His stuttering was his only real handicap, but in a world where fast and furious talkers rule, he was as crippled as someone with no legs. He was smarter and better than the work he was doing, but, for now, it was the best he could do.

It had been three weeks since he had started his new job and first saw this beautiful woman who danced alone in the empty hall. Well, she had danced the first two weeks or so, and then she began this phase of acting like a statue. Sometimes, the woman would hold this same pose for over an hour, or at least she looked the same when Robert would poke his head through the double steel door every now and then. He thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

She always wore the same style clothing, even when Robert saw her walking on campus. Her skirt reached to just below the fleshiest part of her calf, exposing a slender ankle and small, pretty foot. The blouse was of some silk-like material that buttoned down the front and had a small collar and sleeves that billowed slightly as they stretched down her arms, ending at a cuff that snugly held to the middle of her forearm. Protruding from the opening was a delicate wrist and expressive hands. To Robert, it was as if some master waxman had placed his masterpiece in the center of that room, flawless beauty and form frozen in space and time. It seemed that she would be in the same stance every day, as if she never left the hall, only the color of her clothes would change like some fashion store mannequin. One day she would be dressed in red, then blue, then green, then pink. Robert had seen ten color schemes so far, though the dark green skirt with a shade lighter blouse was a favorite and complimented her misty green eyes, he thought.

Robert was right in thinking she had not noticed him before he finally got up the courage to say something. Her concentration was wholly taken up with keeping her right knee, held even with her hip, from wobbling and her hands about a foot before her face and seemingly caught amid reaching upward for something. Her head was also tilted upward, as if she were imploring Deity for some favor. The first day she had noticed him, she became embarrassed and left while his attention was drawn away from her. This second day, she decided to handle things differently.

This day, Robert only watched her silently, as he had previously, worried that she might drift away again like some beautiful dream. She had no idea how many days he had been watching her and she might have become disturbed if she had known. The young woman was in her usual position, seeming to supplicate, when she decided to show him her transformation.

Barely noticeable at first, the smallest finger on her left hand moved, slowly at first, but then with more freedom, as if it were thawing from a deep-freeze. That finger brushed against the next and it too began to move, life seeming to pass from one to the other. Soon, all the fingers of her left hand seemed to ripple as if in a light breeze and then suddenly the attached wrist was released and she spread the fingers wide and began to slowly rotate the hand.

The thawed extremity seemed to be influencing the other parts to which it was connected as movement came next to the elbow and then the shoulder. Ability seemed to arc across her collarbone and snap the other arm to life, splaying her right fingers in a jolt like electrification. In a moment, both arms and hands were in motion, slowly swaying in some imaginary breeze that whispered through them. Her spine was affected next as the speed of the transformation seemed to quicken, swinging her hips about, and causing her lifted leg to stretch to its full length before her, exposed toes pointing, stretching out, then slowly, gracefully, touching the floor. Her neck moved slowly then, like some serpent, and her head turned slowly to face toward the young Robert. Her face finally melted into a wonderful smile that transfigured her formerly stony countenance. She said simply, in a tender voice that melted his heart, "Can I help you?"

Robert's eyes were as big as saucers and his mouth hung open as his legs lost all control and he fell back onto his bottom. When he regained some control of his face, all he could bring himself to say was "W-W-W-Wow!" This seemed to be just the reaction she was after, for her face beamed kindly at his flustering. The broom finally slipped from his forgotten hand and fell to the floor with a sharp crack that echoed through the hall. That broke the spell and he finally managed a blink and gave the young woman an awkward smile.

She took a small step forward, coming to help raise him up, but that made him draw back a little. She opened her hands, almost as if she were showing that she bore no weapon. "Betadin," she said suddenly.

This was all becoming too strange for Robert, whose eyes were nearly as dinner plates now. "W-What?"

She smiled down on him again and tossed a wonderful cascade of light-brown hair behind her shoulder. "I'm studying the part of Betadin, the statue that becomes a woman because of a man's love." She offered her hand to him and cocked her head. "Do you know the story?"

It almost seemed to the young woman that they had exchanged places: she was now the animated figure and he was a hunched thing on the floor, frozen in shock. "I'm sorry if I frightened you." Her hand remained outstretched. "My name is Rachel."

The young man blinked his eyes, looked at the proffered hand, then back to the lovely, smiling vision of her face. He began reaching his hand out to meet hers, but it was jittering nervously. His face grew red and he was about to break out into a sweat. He opened his mouth to say something but he couldn't catch breath enough to even whisper.

Rachel was touched by his predicament, and gently covered the distance between them and clasped his hand. This seemed to send a jolt through him but nothing like the lightening bolt that nearly rent his soul when she laid her other hand atop his, cradling it tenderly. "And your name is?"

"R-R-R-R-R," he began, sounding like some rusty door being opened slowly. Rachel kept hold of his hand and looked deeply into his eyes with the patience of a woman who could hold her body completely still for almost an hour. He gave a strained gulp, finally began sweating for some relief, and "R-R-R-R"-ed for a minute or two more before wrenching out "R-Robert."

To him, she seemed to radiate pleasure as she said, "It is very nice to meet you, Robert!" He performed a shaky nod as she easily helped him back to his feet. She seemed to understand that a nod was the best he could do for a response just then. She squeezed his hand lightly and broke their connection softly, drawing her hands back to herself, which caused an audible sigh to come from Robert's lips. Rachel sheltered an almost-giggling grin with a hand as she marveled at the effect her attention was having on this young man. It was actually very refreshing, given the odd stares and whispers her clothing and curious habits usually stirred up in men. Rachel was genuinely enjoying this. "Have you been watching me long?"

The question was so direct that Robert reeled, his face the color of a beet. His lower jaw became limp again and his tongue seemed to swell within his mouth, almost choking him. He seemed incapable of answering, so she did it for him. "That long." He gave a very short nod, this whole frame shaking as if the cold that had petrified him was finally being broken by her warm glow. "I-I-It was b-b-beautiful!" he exclaimed after a moment.

Rachel sent the full force of her smile and glittering eyes bearing down on the young man, but instead of backing away now, he returned the joy as best he could. "Thank you," she replied quietly. "I am glad you liked it." At that moment, the beam of the dying sun struck the woman just so and she was flooded with a yellow-red fire and the illuminated dust swirled about her like a crowd giving way before a mighty queen as she moved to him and softly touched his cheek. "You can watch me anytime," she breathed into his ear. He shivered and closed his eyes with the ecstasy of the sensation. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone and the rays of the light were gone with the disappeared sun.

For the next month of so, Robert watched Rachel practice, content to only look on her but hurrying back to his work when she was finished and began walking towards him. At first, Rachel thought she might be tormenting him and toyed with the idea of finding another place to practice her art, but something inside her said that he just needed some time to get comfortable with her attention. It seemed a terribly long time but the feeling inside her was right, as it so often was. After three months, the young man could not only abide her gaze, but he could even carry on short conversations with Rachel.

The real breakthrough came when the young woman decided to bring her dinner with her to practice instead of leaving the hall to go to the college cafeteria. Her sanity drove her to the decision one day, as she had reached her fill of loathing the stares from other women and the outright jeers from some of the men. When she left that cavern of questionable cuisine each day, she was nearly always on the verge of tears, feeling lower than the dust. She would even lay awake at night and wonder whether life were really worth living for. She just didn't seem to fit in this world, of which her father had once told her, "Until you can learn something worthwhile, you will never amount to anything." All the evidence seemed in his favor, so she agreed to college at a fine engineering school, since her father had heard that engineering was the next "hot" field for income potential. Rachel wondered how long she would be able to stay in school after her father saw her grades as she sat cross-legged on the dance-hall floor, munching on a hastily-prepared sandwich.

Robert scurried away after she had offered to share her food with him, which made her day seem dark. Rachel had grown very fond of the young man's attention and even had begun to depend on it to counter the depressing loneliness she often felt being around others. Now, even he had run off and left her to black thoughts.

A twinge of pain struck her as she was reminded, for the third time that day, of the first anniversary of another dark time: the passing for her beloved Gramma Jo. Rachel's father made the death even more bitter when he had forbidden her to attend the funeral. Her father never veiled his contempt for Jo from the girl and he blamed the old woman for filling Rachel's head full of dreams and foolishness about dancing. 'I should have never let you near her!' Father shouted the evening of the funeral. 'I'm glad she is gone! It is about time you started hearing about some sensible things for a change!' Little did her father know, but it was far too late to change the young woman's passions. She gave a deep sigh as she pictured her grandmother, in restful repose, and the fact that the young woman who had loved her and been loved of her the most could not be there.

Suddenly, Robert appeared again, bearing a crumpled-up paper bag. Rachel smiled gratefully and wiped away a tear as the young man sat beside her and began eating slowly. "Y-You look s-sad," he said.

"Oh," she replied quietly, her voice strange from her little cry. "I'm just remembering a sad day." She shook her head, trying to dispel the memory. "I have had a lot of sad days."

Robert bowed his head as he knelt beside her, nodding. "M-M-Me, t-t-too."

They ate in silence for a while, wrapped up in their own thoughts as the sun faded away and then finally set. The fluorescent lights that now lit the hall were, at best, unflattering, but when Robert would glance at Rachel every few moments, he still thought she was the most beautiful and wonderful person in the world. Even under the artificial sun, she seemed to catch more of the light around her and radiate it out through her kindness and gentleness and love. Robert may have conquered much of his shyness about being near her, but he never lost his awe of everything about her, especially how the very essence of joy and love seemed to flow from her eye and her soft touch. If it were proper, he would have worshipped her as some angel fallen from heaven, struggling along amidst the injustices and indignities of life in this world. Robert wished he could lift her back up to that glorious place, where she was understood and appreciated. And when she was there, he hoped that she would show him a little compassion, take his hand, and pull him up to where she was. But for now, Robert was just happy being with her.

Rachel offered carrot sticks with a smile and Robert came back with apple slices and a sheepish grin. Their first little feast seemed to go on for hours: She, reveling in a situation where, for once, someone accepted her and actually liked her just the way she was, and He, simply grateful that someone so wondrous wanted to spend time with him.

After dinner, they continued a tradition that had begun a week before, where Rachel would tell one of the multitude of stories that her Gramma Jo had so diligently taught her. Sometimes, she would pantomime or even break into dance, but Robert didn't mind how the story was told -- he hung on every word and marveled at every movement. Rachel was never sure how much of each tale the young man actually heard, but it helped her to do something while she was with the young man besides just awkwardly accepting his obvious devotion. She had several hundred stories memorized and tried to present a varied cross-section that included comedy, which always produced the silliest, nasal giggle from Robert; dramas and tragedies, that left him soaked in his own tears; and simple tales, that had deep moral threads woven into them, causing the young man to ponder ideas he had never considered before. For Rachel, Robert was the perfect audience: totally enthralled in the tales she spun and never let down even if the young woman missed an element and had to add it later. He would always clap loudly and whistle upon her closing curtsy. For that last month of the semester, College was nearly tolerable for the woman, made so by the never-tiring adoration of Robert.

The cold nights of fall grew into the cold days and nights of early winter as the college term drew to an end. Examinations were now over and students were put to work scrubbing the classrooms and public areas preparatory to leaving campus for the Christmas holiday. Rachel had volunteered to clean in the dance hall so she could spend more time than normal with Robert. It had been easy for him to be with her when they had been alone, but now she happily chatted to him within earshot of many others and he suddenly felt very self-conscious. Rachel had grown used to the bad attention she had received from others, but Robert had always dealt with his own troubles by avoiding other people. He was not allowed that luxury today. He was almost clingy throughout Washing Day, as it was called, hovering about her, too nervous to speak much. Rachel rattled on and on about nothing in particular for the simple reason that the sound drowned out any taunts that were cast at her. The young man with her heard those taunts just fine, and he grew red with anger at times, nearly rising and pouncing on the offender, but Rachel's gentle touch would always come and one look into her eyes would dispel the violence he felt. She was very touched that he wanted to defend her honor, but he was no match for the muscular dance students that seemed born with fiery temperaments and picked fights as often as they drew breath. It was a terribly long day, but it went better for both when they were together.

The hall was soon empty again as the rays of the setting sun flashed through the windows set high and long along the ceiling. Even Rachel had gone, wanting to shower, but promising to return soon with a surprise. Robert stirred up what little dust there was to catch the light, pacing back and forth. He was standing in the full sun, blinking and trying to get some warmth into his frame, when he heard the gentle brush of a skirt against a leg. Robert turned about and there Rachel stood, in a pool of orange light, in a dress pieced together from fabric dyed with every pastel color there was. Tiny bows with trailing ribbons were pinned into her flowing hair and wider ribbons were draped down from her waist and nearly reached the bottom of her skirt hem. She looked at him cautiously. "Do you like it? This is my penny theatre dress. Someday, I will wear this on-stage." She smiled her empathy at his characteristic speechlessness. Rachel came a few steps nearer, winked at her friend, then spun around, causing her hair and skirt to billow and stir up currents of air and light. She spun five times before slowing to a stop, but Robert never saw it, for she was thoughtful to douse herself and her dress liberally with what she knew was his favorite perfume. He was so wrapped in the ecstasy of her scent that his eyes had fluttered shut and the young man inhaled like it was the last oxygen on earth. Rachel came right up to him, touched his cheek lovingly with her fingertips, and gently blew in his face. This made him start from his revelry and he gawked at her effortless beauty closer than he ever had before. "Hi!" she breathed. "Would you help me with something, please?"

Rachel spread a blanket, that must have been made from the same bits of cloth as her dress. "My grandmother made them both for me, just before she died." Her eyes glazed over just a bit.

"I-I'm s-sorry," he said slowly, trying to curb his stuttering.

She took his hand and gripped it tightly. "It's not your fault. Things just happen." She said this last quietly, as if trying to convince herself.

It was quite a picnic, with fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, corn and beans, homemade bread, and lemonade. Rachel arranged her dress and hair as fetchingly as she could and daintily served Robert, doing all of this because she knew he would notice it and be so endearingly flustered, which helped her love him the more. She wanted this to be a special night for Robert, for she knew that they only had a few more evenings left.

Dinner over, they pulled the food-laden blanket to a corner of the room. "W-What t-t-tale are y-y-you t-telling t-tonight?"

Rachel cocked her head prettily and pursed her lips. "I think I want you to pick tonight." The young man didn't hesitate for a second. "Betadin," he blurted without the slightest stutter. Rachel was surprised at this choice, but nodded nonetheless. "Very well," she replied, "the tale is "Betadin Returns from Stone."

''Once upon a time, a young woman was stolen from her kindly parents and made to serve a nasty ogre as his cook. The girl did her best to please him, but no matter what she cooked, he would always curse and bellow, rant and rave, and call her nasty names as he threw the food in her face. The woman had once been full of joy, but the ogre had stolen it away from her, bit by bit. Finally, after a taste of her chicken and dumplings, the creature flew into a rage, vomiting forth the most vile names. It became so terrible that she began to appeal to God to deafen her ears and stiffen her soul against the barrage of hate. As she looked heavenward , reaching for any solace she could pluck from the eternal, the ogre's rampage finally drained all the love from her and her tender heart turned to stone. The deadness spread quickly and painfully through her, until her whole frame was hard and gray. On seeing her change, the ogre was satisfied, and spitting a few more expletives, just for spite, he went away to torment people somewhere else.''

"Now," Rachel spoke gently, "I'm going to need your help. You must play the part of Ascendus the woodcutter, who falls in love with Betadin."

Robert's eyes grew large at the thought of playing a role when he had only been a spectator before. He blinked and rose to his feet, not knowing really what to do. He coughed and watched, almost with fright, as Rachel reached into the sky again and transformed into the stony Betadin. Now, the young man was alone to express what this Ascendus was thinking and feeling.

It began in him like a low, unintelligible mumble, but when Rachel concentrated, she could hear the words quite clearly. He stared at the toes of his shoes and did the only thing he knew to do: he poured out his heart.

''Many months passed but it did little to weather the stone that Betadin had become. Birds would perch on her head and arms and large animals sniffed at her in fear until they became used to her. And every day, a woodcutter named Ascendus came along the deer track that passed right by the hardened girl. He supposed that is was just some statue of a goddess and usually just tipped his hat to her as he passed by.''

''One day, he was late leaving the forest and the sun was just above the treetops, casting long shadows. As the woodcutter ambled by the spot where Betadin stood, the red-gold rays of the setting sun caught her eyes and they glittered. Upon closer inspection, he was stunned to see that those eyes were actually human and as he startled, a tear ran down the stony girl's cheek. He stared in amazement: this statue was alive!''

"I have seen you a hundred times and you have graced my dreams a thousand. You look to God with a plea that I wish I could answer, but I am just a little person to be a help for Deity." Rachel almost fell over as Robert spoke, clear and quiet, with never a stutter. "These eyes are so sweet and kind, it pains me to my very soul to see you weep, one with such faith to turn to God in the darkest hour."

Rachel, with wet cheeks, had never considered that Robert might have thoughts like this, much less words to express them. She kept her eyes fixed on the flickering fluorescent light in the ceiling, but her attention was riveted on this curious young man that she thought she had known. He suddenly came right in front of her and softly rested his hands on her hips.

His voice was almost a whisper. "I love you, Rachel! From the moment I first saw you bathed in light, I knew there could never be another who could so possess my heart as you. Your kindness and generosity toward an imprisoned soul helped me climb a dozen mountains that stood between the frightened thing that I was and the man who now stands before you. No matter what differences stand between us, no matter what summits I must still mount, I will forever love you! I will adore you always for the precious gift of hope that you have blessed me with.

"While you appeal to the heavens, pray that I don't entrust my heart to you in error. You held it in your hands for months, unaware of your burden. I pray now that I am well-served and that you think enough of me not to cast my tender feelings aside because you might not share them. If it is not love for you, set my heart back into the cold, hard world gently, but know that it will be a searing wound that will never be mended."

Robert began to pull away, but the woman, not even considering how far he had strayed from his character, melted before him, her arms falling around his neck, eyes closing as she stretched forward and pressed her lips softly against his. He was stiff for just a few seconds and then he brought his arms around her waist, pulling their two bodies closer together. Stopping just long enough to inhale, Rachel murmured, "Oh, Robert, I love you, too!"

One big steel door crashed into the cinder block wall as an angry man in a suit and overcoat stormed in to the hall. "I knew I would find you here," he barked, baring his teeth. The sudden commotion tore the couple apart and Rachel reeled from bliss to horror. "Father?"

"I slave to send you to a good college and here I find you, dressed like some circus side-show, romancing! Now I finally realize how much you appreciate what I do for you." He rushed forward, nearly at a run.

Rachel sprang back into Robert's arms, pulling his ear to her lips. "Don't let him take me away! It's too soon! I don't want to turn back into stone!" He turned his head back to face her and worked his jaw up and down, but no sound was coming. Whatever miracle their love had wrought that night was now lost; Robert couldn't say a word and cowered away when Rachel's father approached.

The old man grasped Rachel roughly by the arm and jerked her toward the door. "Say good-bye, loverboy," the father sneered. "As long as I'm around, you'll never see her again!" Robert so wanted to strike out at this man, who would treat his love so horribly, but the gripping molasses of his old fears and timidity were quick to bind him once again. He could only watch as the man dragged his daughter out of the building, Rachel struggling the entire way, groping toward Robert with an imploring hand. When she was outside, she managed to shout the young man's name, but it was followed immediately by a sharp slap, and then there were only loud sobs, fading away.

Her father tore the back door of his car open and tossed Rachel inside like a sack of rocks. Doors slammed shut and the car screeched into the night.

Robert still stood, stunned, for several minutes after the sound of the car had faded from hearing. He cursed himself for not doing anything, and after being so brave. He didn't think he could do that, but when Rachel was around him, anything was possible. With a sudden sniff, he began to sob because she was gone and the hope was gone as well. He stumbled to the remains of Rachel's picnic and grabbed up the pastel patchwork blanket she had used for a spread. When he buried his tear-streaked face in the fabric, he could still smell her perfume faintly, which made him cry all the harder.

''...and Ascendus took Betadin to his little house and married her, and they lived happily ever after.''

Rachel thought it was a stupid tale, especially since life never worked like that. As the miles streamed passed, she looked out the window and did her best to ignore her father's ranting and raving. She had wept much, but now her jaw was set, holding back her sorrow.

She had thought that Robert might become some knight in shining armor, sweep her off of her feet, and somehow bear her off to a place where all of the people were kind and understanding. For a few moments, it had seemed that Robert had really become that knight, but in the moment of truth, he failed her and was just a janitor. What good was praying to a God that would let things like that happen? She gritted her teeth and scowled, not at her father for destroying her life, but at Robert, because he didn't rise to her expectations, and at God, for not answering her prayers. As the miles rolled by, her heart, that had tasted the sweetness of pure, undiluted love only an hour before, was turned to granite within her. Like Betadin, anger had turned the impassioned young dancer to stone, but it might take more than a woodcutter's, or a janitor's, love to defrost the arctic she had formed in her own soul.

Three

One thing in life is certain: time passes. Far less certain are old adages, such as "Time heals all wounds." In some ways, time took away some of the pain in Rachel's life, but many of the scars she kept for a long time. When she had been forced from college, she was a young nineteen, her adulthood just making an appearance. Now she was in full womanhood with thirty three years to her credit. Those intervening years had beaten down all of her dreams of being a theatric and having knights sweep her away. The daily struggle just to survive as a feeling person had been the only hope she could afford as she cooked and cleaned for her aging parents. Some might have considered it a charitable act worthy of honor, but it was simply her sentence for the crime of spoiling her father's carefully crafted plans.

The first ten years were the worst for Rachel, as she endured the ridicule and shame of her father. She did not endure well as he wantonly stripped away every good feeling about herself, leaving his adult daughter naked and unprotected against a frigid and often unforgiving world. She had, early on, remembered with fondness her college days, but thoughts of Robert stirred always the embers of her anger. It was his fault that her life had turned out this way, she would tell herself. If he had only stood up to her father, things would have been different. Time had finally cooled those embers and the mindless monotony of her life at home had made her nearly forget him. Nearly...

This was her existence now, and any thoughts she harbored outside of housekeeping were just foolish dreams.

It was a great relief when her father finally succumbed to cancer when Rachel was twenty-eight. Near the end, any restraint he had exercised of telling the woman how he really felt about her slipped away and he seemed to joy in what he saw as her daily failures, which only confirmed that his road-map for her had been right and that her pathetic efforts to do otherwise had brought her to this pitiful end. Rachel had long ago given up the argument and accepted her father's interpretation of her life. At his funeral, she even cried, for though she had loathed and hated him for most of her life, he had, at least, paid attention to her. Rachel's mother was a completely different matter.

The grind of dealing with her father had so occupied Rachel's time that she mostly ignored her mother. After Father's demise though, she mechanically cared for the old woman, who stared into nothingness and was, to her daughter, something to spoon pureed food into and to remove soiled diapers from. If her father stripped away Rachel's self-respect, her mother gave her the opportunity to feel what it was like not to exist. The old woman sat in an overstuffed chair and rocked as the television blared before her. She never looked at Rachel or even acknowledged her presence. It would have been better for her if her mother had even actively ignored her child, but not even that was offered. For Rachel, it was like attending to a machine, and she didn't even bother attending the funeral when the wife followed her husband four years later.

Now, every day was the same for Rachel, living alone in the house that her parents had unwittingly left her. She awakened always at seven in the morning, showered, and sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee until ten. Then she would move to the living room and watch a soap opera numbly until eleven, when she would walk to the small grocery down the street.

Long ago, the owner of the store had stopped trying to strike up a conversation with the shuffling woman, who would only respond by lifting her head and staring blankly through the man with empty, lifeless eyes. The stout man passed her off as some spooky old woman, for she carried herself like a woman three times her age. The grocer could have also easily assembled the things she wanted in advance, for they never changed: coffee, flour, cherries, milk, eggs, and a chocolate bar. After she passed through the register, she would shuffle home with her small paper bag, munching chocolate, and the grocer would shake his head in resignation.

At one in the afternoon, Rachel would watch another soap opera and after that program had ended, she would bake six large cherry muffins. These muffins were actually very good and tasty, but she only knew that her father had never liked them and her mother had never said anything for or against them. She would eat two, along with a glass of milk, at four-thirty in the afternoon, she would watch an old movie on television, then go to her tiny bedroom and manage to fall asleep after staring at the overhead light fixture for a few hours. It wasn't much of a life, but then again, she wasn't behaving much like a person.

Winter was late that year and the leaves were still green on the trees into November. Rachel's countrymen took the opportunity to bask in the sun and to recreate, secure in the fact that their favorite shows were still on television and, as long as they paid their bills, the lights and the gas appliances still worked. They might have done better being about the attentions of a neighboring country, which eyed the fertile valleys of Rachel's homeland. The few extra warm weeks in autumn provided for their untrusted, but never yet violent, neighbors an opportunity to stage a stunning invasion that took nearly two-thirds of the her country's territory. Fortunately, Rachel lived in the remaining third.

The malady that numbed Rachel also seemed to permeate her nation. Even in the face of conquerance, the people were rather complacent. Instead of giving and receiving rousing speeches that called the men to defend and take back their lands, people complained about how the coverage of the invasion was interrupting their favorite television programs. There were a few isolated rebellions in the newly occupied territories, but these were quickly quelled. The new government returned television to its regular programming and very few people seemed to care that they had been conquered. Taxes were raised and men were forced into military reserve units, but there was just some belly-aching about it, sitcoms had the new realities woven into their plots in funny ways, and everyone just got adjusted to the new situation and did what they were told. Everything that really mattered to people, like television and money, were provided in abundance, so there was little to complain about. When their new overseers confiscated their farms and property, moved them to shabby tenements, and gradually took away all of their freedoms, the conquered people barely even noticed or seemed to care: they reveled in free cigarettes and recreational drugs, bigger paychecks, and more channels on the television. Life, or what the people substituted for life, was much better now.

A few brave souls gathered together in the as-yet-unconquered regions and began to raise an army. Brought to the new capital of the land, this rag-tag group of totally untrained men were billeted in torn-up brown tents, stinking of sweat and mildew, just outside of the town where Rachel lived. Almost to a man, they were underfed, poorly clothed, and badly bathed, but these were the men that heeded the call to liberty and freedom from oppression.

Their general was a bald man of about fifty years, still energetic and possessed with a strategic mind that had already formulated the plan to end the invasion, but lacking the charisma to inspire the assembled men to act upon a very risky plan. He would try to engage two or three foot-soldiers and explain his idea, but no one seemed willing to take the associated risk. The chances of returning from the mission were frankly slim at best, even if they were successful, and no one was ready to give up their lives in such a risky venture. Courage was something men had on television when you knew the star of the show would be back again to play the role next week. These men had no such guarantee and they would not support a plan that didn't promise a risk-free, ready-for-television victory. But the general finally found one.

He almost lurked in shadows just to avoid attention. When the general noticed him, last of all, he was in the corner of the mess tent, hunched over some strange concoction, wincing as he spooned in the swill. The general brought his tray to sit beside the man and made some small talk with him. The man didn't look very interested, not saying a word in response, but in his desperation, the general laid out his plan, including his appraisal of possible risks and benefits. The man chewed his food slowly as the general spoke, images filling his mind. There were scenes of stories that he had heard as a young man and kept close in his heart: tales of bravery, love, hate, mercy, revenge, and even caring. Underneath all of these images moving across his mind, a backdrop became more and more clear: it was a young knight kneeling before the still figure of a dancer appealing to heaven. The general coughed politely, startling the man out of his thoughts. "What do you think?" the older man asked.

The young man looked at his plate again, his mind shouting at him. All his life, his shyness had allowed him to avoid difficult things that a courageous man could face and perhaps even conquer. Then came the sting of the memory. Once, he had the chance to be courageous, to do something truly noble, but he had stepped back into his shyness and the moment and the one person he had ever truly loved was lost forever. He vowed that day to never again pass up another opportunity to be courageous. He swallowed the food in his mouth and furrowed his brow. He turned to his general, looked him in the eye, and said "I'll d-d-do it."

Fateful days always begin differently from others, which still held true even in Rachel's monotonous life. It all started when she could not shut the door of the freezer section atop her refrigerator. There were simply too many cherry muffins! At first, Rachel stacked things carefully in the small compartment, making as much room as possible, but now their sheer mass forced her to jam new additions in wherever space could be made or a blank spot threatened to allow the whole thing to tumble out. She could never eat more than two of the muffins she baked each day, and she couldn't bring herself to throw them out, so freezing seemed the best answer. Now, the reckoning time had come and she had to do something different. Her ten o'clock soap opera was over and her mind turned to the coming trip to the grocer. A thought struck her as if from the sky and she nearly snorted as she pondered it: She would take the muffins to the owner of the grocery.

Rachel spent considerable time wondering how to transport the defrosting mound of muffins on her kitchen table. She happened upon her mother's old bushel basket and a red wagon from her childhood. If anyone along her route to the store had bothered to look, they would have seen that queer old-looking woman doing something even queerer than usual: towing behind her a rusty old wagon containing an overflowing basket of steaming muffins. She had to stop quite often to pick up one or two treats that had tumbled off of the pile, but in short order, she had her muffins inside the small grocery store.

The poor grocer didn't know quite what to do about the curious situation. The old woman that had never given him the time of day before was now trying to palm off several dozen muffins like some tired salesman. "You really do want these," she said morosely. "You could sell them."

"Oh," the man said as nicely as he could, "I really don't think I could do that. They don't look very appealing." The heat of the day had finished the defrosting process, but many of the muffins had failed to hold their shape and looked quite mushy, Rachel had to admit.

The woman offered another choice. "You could take them home to your family. I don't want any money for them."

The man sighed, looking dubiously from Rachel to her unsavory muffins. "Uh, that is a nice thought, but I don't think we could eat them quickly enough before they went bad." The grocer questioned even if they were ever any good, especially having been made by this odd woman. He thought for any way to get this creature and her creations out of his shop, as neither could improve business. Suddenly, a thought struck him. "The army is camped just out of town. I'm sure they would appreciate these, um, muffins. Why don't you try to give them away there?" He was already turning her wagon around and ushering her out of the store before she could say a word to the contrary.

Rachel had really just wanted to unload the muffins on someone and go home before she missed her afternoon soap opera and a movie she was actually looking forward to watching. Instead, after a tiresome hunched walk to the outskirts of town, she was being escorted to the largish tent in the middle of the army camp by two scruffy soldiers who thought that would be the best place to distribute muffins. She had wanted to just drop them off at the gate, but now she was approaching the slowly moldering canvas mess tent.

The press of men seemed to electrify Rachel somehow. Unlike the images of crowds on television, these men were breathing and reacting to her, looking at her awkwardly and accepting her muffins with uncertainty. She blinked, trying to process all the sights and sounds and smells around her, which she had not had to deal with for many years. Rachel looked at each man as they came to her, seeing the lifelessness in them that seemed just like the attitude she had become accustomed to seeing in her mirror at home. Perhaps that was why she gave up looking in mirrors.

With a start, she looked at the next man in line and found that he looked very familiar. Another moment passed and the memory of him returned in a flood. He looked older now and more careworn, but it was definitely Robert. Once, long ago, she had thought of him as some sort of hero, but she had been mistaken and consequently hurt. The old feelings of pain began to well within her, but she shrugged them away. Whatever she had felt those many years ago was long passed. She reached into her basket and pulled out nothing.

"I'm sorry," Rachel said blankly. "I'm out of muffins."

Robert stood there before her, flabbergasted just like always. The men waiting behind him moved off when it became obvious that there were no more treats available. "D-Don't you rem-m-member m-me?"

The woman blinked and stared hollowly at him. "Of course I remember you, Robert."

He stood there for a moment, waiting. Was that all she was going to say? Not even a "How are you?" or a "It's been a long time." Even a "You were a thoughtless coward to let my father steal me away" would have been better than this silence. Rachel turned around and began moving toward the exit.

Robert was at a loss for what to do, but his body took action anyway, sprinting in front of the woman to block her escape. Rachel was busily shuffling along, shoulders hunched over, eyes on her shoes, when she bumped into the man. She jerked up straight and looked into Robert's face, brows furrowed. She really had nothing to say to him, but her mouth opened and something strangely familiar came out: "Can I help you?"

Robert wanted to say something, but his mind was a blank. His mouth opened and closed repeatedly as if he were saying something, but there was no sound. Rachel squinted as if trying to read his lips, but her interest was waning quickly. She looked back down to her shoes and prepared to shuffle to the side and passed him, but Robert became nervous and had to do something.

"T-T-Tell m-me a t-t-tale!" Robert spat suddenly, startling himself as much as Rachel jerked back in surprise.

The woman eyed him uncertainly, trying to think of some way to say no. It was another complete surprise when she heard herself say "Okay" quietly and found Robert excitedly steering her toward the center of the room.

''There was a man named Jesus, who had been sent by God, His Father, to save the people of the world from sin and death. He was given power and strength and wisdom to do His task, but He also had the one great gift that had been given to all men: the gift of choice.''

''The Son knew what His Father wanted to do, which was to take upon Himself all the sins of man and be punished for them. He also knew that He must die. All of these things had to be accomplish so that man could become worthy to return to God. Jesus also knew that only He could do these things. After a last Passover dinner with His friends, He went out to do the work His Father had given Him.''

The words came to Rachel easily, as if she had told the tale a thousand times. She had only heard it once, but it seemed as if some power from above were expanding her mind and she could recall the tale without any effort at all. As she spoke, a peculiar light came into her face and she smiled for the first time in years. Rachel began suddenly to sway back and forth to the tempo of the story and the forgotten years of practice that lay dormant within her. With a sweep, she was on her feet, spreading her arms wide and attracting much attention to herself.

''Beside a rock that rests in a peaceful garden, Jesus knelt to pray and accept the sins of men. He asked His Father if there was any way to avoid this, but He already knew that He could not. Then, like a waterfall, wave upon wave of sins crashed down upon Him, physically bearing down upon Him with a weight that would have crushed the bones of a mere man. He felt the pain of trust lost when a lie is revealed, and the sorrow as a thief is caught by the authorities with no chance of escape. Jesus writhed as He was chained by lusts uncontrolled and pleasures unrestrained. He felt the woman's heart break as her husband confessed adultery. The Son of God even understood the horror that came after a raging fit that causes one man to kill another, seeing only the hopeless terror of his victim as life itself bled away, the murderer never being able to repair the damage. All this and more Jesus suffered, thousands upon thousands of times over. The agony of the experience, totally new to a sinless man, was so much that He bled from every pore like sweat.''

Rachel writhed on the floor herself, as if in great pain, as she told the tale and every eye was riveted on her. A few men even stood over her with concern etched on their faces, not sure if she were playing a role or really stricken by some torture. There was simply no choice, every man in the hall was watching and listening. Even the general, who had just pulled aside the tent flap and entered, came to see what was happening.

''Even as He convulsed from the effort, He yet raised His voice to God, His Father, praying for strength equal to the task. At any time, He could have commanded the pain to cease, for He had that power, but He had promised His Father to carry through to the bitter end.''

''The thundering roar of anguish and emotion dulled to a throb as He began to grow accustomed to the agony, then He returned to His friends and faced His enemies, whose sins He now bore. For a brief moment, escape was again an option, as one of His friends smote off a servant's ear. In the commotion, He could have fled and escaped into the desert, but He did not -- the sins He had upon Him must be paid for if the plan of His Father was to succeed. The appointed path was not away from His enemies, but toward them. The servant miraculously healed, He went obediently with the mob.''

''His friends did not follow or even try to rescue Him, save one, and that one denied even knowing Jesus three times. The Son of God was alone and betrayed, after accepting the punishment for their sins. That would have been an easily justified time to walk away from His purpose, for who there was worthy of the great gift that Christ was fashioning in those hours?''

''The governor gave Him another opportunity to put His burden aside, asking again and again for Jesus to speak in His own defense against His enemies' preposterous charges. If the stricken man would only speak, the governor would be satisfied with a good flogging and let the man live. But the way His Father had chosen for Jesus led to a rough-hewn cross and death, not light punishments and life.''

The tables had been cleared away to give Rachel room to move about, and the tent was filled to overflowing with every soldier in camp coming to see the spectacle. The woman pantomimed the weary Christ, dragging his cross up to Golgotha. Tears were in the eyes of some as they imagined the scene and the incredible effort being portrayed. Robert stood now in the back, pushed there by men more eager to see. The man was full of conflicting emotions and wanted to run, but his still-vivid love for her and his fascination with her tale kept him close.

''Again, the seeming futility of His life's work struck Jesus, as the soldiers, whose sins He was bearing then, taunting Him as they lifted Him up on the cross, telling Him to perform one of His miracles and come down. Not only could He have done that, but He could have reduced the soldiers to ash and brought down every wall in Rome with one word, but He did not. He was committed to doing the work His Father had sent Him to do.''

''For hours, they ridiculed and spit on Him, and even His own Father turned His love and spirit away from His beloved Son now buried in a sea of transgressions that He did not commit, but of which He must pay in every way. "Why have you forsaken me?" This also He knew the answer to. The punishment must be complete, which included being cut off from His Father, which was the deepest pain of all for the one man that had lived a perfect life and had never before drawn breath without the presence of the Father's spirit with Him. In that moment, the temptation to end the suffering came again, for He was the Son of God and He didn't have to die. Was mankind worthy of salvation? He looked down at the handful of those who knew Him and what He was. They cried and wailed that He should have to die. But He knew that Christ must pay the price, if only a handful would ever make use of the great gift. Even a few justified the terrible cost. "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." With that, He finished His labor.''

The silence was profound as Rachel stepped out of the character of Jesus, and, her body hurting from the unaccustomed exertion, wobbled as she stood up tall. The general came forward as the girl slipped away, quickly drawing parallels between this story of Christ and the plight of their nation. Jesus' sacrifice for all men was likened to the potential sacrifice to insure the freedom of their countrymen. No one failed to see the similarity or neglected to see the Savior's unbending courage and faith in his cause. Very quietly, the old warrior asked if there were a few who were willing to accept this assignment that would likely cost them their lives.

The sea of men swayed a bit, but there was no response. Suddenly, one figure moved, pushing a way open through the crowd and came to stand by the general. "I-I-I'll d-do it," he said softly. Rachel turned as she was about to leave the tent and go home. She saw Robert standing straight and tall, facing his comrades. Like the leak that becomes a flood, two men came up to stand beside Robert and accept the challenge, then another two, then three, and soon, all were on their feet, pledging themselves to courage and freedom. Rachel felt a surge of pride to see such a display, but she turned away again to leave.

Quietly, one man began to clap his hands together, bringing Rachel up short. As she turned to see, there was Robert looking straight at her and clapping as he wept. In very short order, the clapping spread until the entire tent was a deafening roar of applause for this woman who had inspired them. She looked about with surprise at first and then broke into a large and, to Robert, familiar smile. Rachel curtsied deeply, blew the men a kiss, and hurried out of the camp before they could catch her.

She missed the afternoon movie and got to bed very late that night, but that didn't matter to Rachel now. She spent that whole evening rummaging through boxes and musty drawers that had not been opened in years. Finally, she happened upon the treasure that she had been seeking, hugging it close to her with a dreamy, closed-eyed look, and actually blessing her father for not throwing it out. She very carefully washed it and dried it on the 'delicate' setting, such was her reverence for the theatre dress she had only danced in once, but which embodied every hope and dream she had ever had. Just then, her mind was back in that dusty college dance hall with Robert, and she forgave him that terrible night, for he had given her this day. The feel of her body moving in those familiar ways, the attention of the men, and most of all, their applause, had awakened something inside of her. The little six year old girl that hoped and dreamed had been locked away for many years, almost forgotten from neglect, but today, that girl made her reappearance. And, as Rachel looked at herself in the mirror, made beautiful again with the many pastel colors she wore, she vowed that the little girl within her, and those prayers to God that she had spoken so long ago, would never be imprisoned again.

Four

So many things had happened to lead to this day, it made Rachel pause to realize that it was almost her fifty-sixth birthday. Time had passed like a whirlwind and there had been so many bazaars, as she called them, in the past, but this one would be especially dear to her.

As always, Rachel's backyard was decorated gaily with balloons and streamers in bright colors. Parents milled about, clothing ranging from suits and Sunday dresses to jeans and tee-shirts, each according to their ability to dress for the occasion. Tables were spread with the pot-luck dishes that each family had brought and a few parents stood guard over the food, warding off little children who had more stomach than manners. It was a beautiful day, not hot or cold, and Rachel breathed in deeply and smiled broadly. This looked to be the biggest and best bazaar ever!

Not every bazaar started with such promise. Some had been terribly small and a few years she had not even bothered to plan one, for the children had begged her to cancel the event so they would not have to perform. If there was one thing she knew, Rachel could never neglect a child's desire. In fact, it was the desire of one of those children that had made these wonderful events possible.

Not long after her thirty-fifth birthday, the money began to run low. Rachel's father had amassed quite a nest-egg, but no amount of money lasts forever. Rachel realized that she needed to start earning an income. After just a little thought, the obvious struck her: She should teach children the penny theatre. She had torn out many of the walls in the house to create a dance studio for herself. What a wonderful idea! She already had everything she needed!

Advertisements went out the next week in all the city's most fashionable magazines and even a few were seen on television: there was a woman who would teach children the traditional theatre dance of their nation. At first, the response was enthusiastic and very nice cars could be seen parked in her driveway, though it was in the poorer part of town. But after a few months, Rachel was reduced to only two students, neither of which were excited to be there.

Rachel didn't know exactly why she wasn't succeeding, but other people would whisper that she was some sort of zealot, telling subversive stories instead of teaching dancing, wishing not just for students, but for converts with heads full of strange passions and silly dreams. The rich folk began to shy away, also because the penny theatre was rather low-brow and beneath the picture that was in mind for their children. After only five months of effort, Rachel dismissed her last few students and desperately sought another plan. At this low time, Jennifer came into her life.

Just down the street from Rachel's home, the houses became small and somewhat shabby. Many were owned by people who lived far away and cared little for their state. The people who lived in those houses were small and shabby themselves, made little by their back-breaking toil and dressed in worn second-hand clothes because of their poverty. Across the way and thirteen doors down lived a ten-year-old girl with her family. She was a little shabbier than some, and for three years now, her height was measured from the spot where the rubber of her chair wheels touched the ground to her rather poorly-cropped hair. Rachel had seen Jennifer on occasion, wheeling herself down the street to the grocery store, and it was there, when Rachel was making her daily trip to deliver cherry muffins to the store owner (who had grown quite fond of them), that the two finally met.

That day, the grocer had pointed out how good the apples were and Rachel was prodding a few with her finger, considering a purchase. Suddenly, Jennifer wheeled into the aisle, nearly knocking the woman down. "Apples?" the girl asked with puzzlement. "I thought you were into cherries."

Rachel raised a brow and looked sidelong at the girl in the wheelchair. "Well," she replied with a sigh, "variety is good."

The girl considered this. "A few years back," Jennifer said knowingly, "you didn't do variety." She stuck out her hand and introduced herself. "I'm Jennifer Mead."

Rachel took her hand almost absent-mindedly and shook it slowly. "Um..., I'm perplexed!" she admitted. "Are you some kind of spy?"

Jennifer looked up at her and smiled, shrugging. "Naw, I just see you around a lot. It isn't hard to see what you are up to." She wrinkled her nose. "Nothing too sneaky."

"Well, then," the older woman replied, shaking the younger's hand more vigorously, "I'm very glad to finally meet you, Jennifer."

After this first meeting, Jennifer would come to Rachel's house every week or so, wheeling herself expertly about the sidewalks in between. Jennifer's family didn't seem to mind her absences from home and Rachel discovered that the girl's mother was pleased that the handicapped girl was enthusiastic enough about the visits to actually get out of the house. The older woman didn't want to discourage her and actually looked forward to the visits from the girl in the wheelchair.

Summer was particularly lush that year and when school was out for vacation, Jennifer's visits became more frequent and her time spent at Rachel's house grew as long as the summer days. They would sit in the front yard, drinking lemonade, and talk. After two weeks, subjects of conversation were beginning to dry up, so Rachel hit upon the idea of telling the girl the stories that her Gramma Jo had taught her when she was a girl. Jennifer was perfectly capable of sitting in her wheelchair, resting an elbow on her knee, and cupping her chin in her hand for hours, so the woman was very grateful she had a large catalogue of tales to draw on.

Seeing the woman sitting in her front yard under a spreading shade tree, telling stories to a chair-bound girl was enough to catch the neighbor's attention, but when Rachel would rise and dance a little to the story, even the most reclusive took notice. Curious children from the neighborhood would come to listen and watch. Jennifer, who seemed to know them all, would invite them to sit down and be more comfortable. As July began, and the days grew hot, Rachel found that she had a rather steady following of six to eight children who would be on her lawn around ten in the morning and stay until 2 or 3 o'clock in the afternoon, sipping lemonade and listening to stories that she acted out for them. The parents of the children were just happy to have the kids out of the house and doing something non-destructive. It also certainly helped Rachel keep her mind off of her dancing lesson woes and looming money problems.

One memorable day, it was simply too hot to stay outside, so Rachel invited the children inside, as her studio was more than large enough to accommodate them all. The children couldn't resist commenting on the strangeness of her house, lacking the traditional living or dining rooms and being completely open except for a tiny kitchenette and Spartan bedroom that occupied one corner of the space. Rachel explained that this was a place designed to allow dancing inside and she used it to practice every day. The children were curious but accepting of the explanation and set themselves down as she told them another tale, pantomiming the actions of the characters as best she could.

After a story or two, Jennifer asked a question. "Why did you change your house just to dance?" Rachel was a little surprised by the question, but answered readily enough as the beams of the afternoon sun began to slant through the windows and the children munched quietly on whatever lunches they had brought, listening intently as the woman delved into the story of her life.

Rachel told them of her wish for a knight in shining armor to rescue her from her evil father, and of her grandmother's love and understanding, and her six-year-old birthday present of a visit to the penny theatre. She even told them about her prayer to someday dance at the penny theatre herself. Each child seemed to find in some part of Rachel's story something they could understand and relate to. Rachel also told of the struggles of her growing-up years and the young man named Robert whom she had loved, lost, then found, then lost again.

"Did you ever see Robert again after that day in the army tent?" Jennifer had listened to her story with enthusiasm.

Grimacing visibly, Rachel spoke in spite of the still-smarting wound that pained her whenever she recalled Robert. "No, I haven't seen him again and I don't think I will in this life." She paused, sighing and holding back deeper emotions. "In the mission that stopped and turned back the invasion, I'm told that Robert was killed." Her voice cracked as she spoke. She had long harbored hope that Robert would really turn out to be alive and return as her knight, but now she had to pursue other dreams instead. Jennifer grew quiet and thoughtful with Rachel's sudden emotion, not wanting to cause the woman any more pain. The moment passed and the other children begged her for another story which Rachel gratefully obliged, but the girl in the wheelchair remained silent the rest of the afternoon, wrapped in thought.

Days passed into weeks as the heat continued, roasting the under-watered lawns and driving all indoors to climate-controlled comfort. The children, shepherded always by Jennifer, missed hardly a day with Rachel. Quickly, the children began moving themselves from spectators to participants, wanting Rachel to help them learn the stories and how to move their bodies. Rachel never intended to start the children dancing, but it seemed to come by some natural evolution from watching to doing. A steamy afternoon in August would find the dance studio filled with little bodies, turning and flowing, moving to some unheard tune that the tale put into their collective mind. The stories took on new meaning as the children made themselves part of them through dance. She didn't quite know how, but either by destiny or by the subtle manipulations of the children, Rachel had become their dance instructor.

Not long after the children made the move to being little dancers, Rachel began to receive little gifts left on her doorstep. At first, she would find small loaves of bread and paper plates of fruit, but as time passed, the presents were coming in Styrofoam coolers and were full-course meals. Rachel never knew who was doing this, and never made any effort to find out, but she would leave the empty cooler and the washed dishes that the food had come in on the front door step and every morning, the plates would be full of food again and protected in the cooler. A few weeks later, inside the cooler, she found an envelope with money in it. Rachel felt a little uneasy about all of this, but she figured that the gifts were not left on her step in error, so she was grateful every day for the blessing.

The parents of these children began to notice and get a very high appreciation for what Rachel was doing. The stories she told and burned into each child's memory through their dance were filled with courage, charity, love, and hope, and it began to affect life in each home. Better than any school or program could do, Rachel was transmitting hundreds of years of morals and indigenous values that had once steered their nation, but had been thought lost by all the experts. Each child, in their own way, found something of value to them that was good and began including it in their natures. Each child, that is, except Jennifer.

The girl in the wheel chair still enjoyed going to Rachel's house with the other children, but as the others moved on to this new level of participation, the girl with the imperfect body was left behind. While the other children pranced about under Rachel's tutelage, Jennifer could only sit and wish to do those things with them. 'Perhaps someday,' she would tell herself, wearing a smile that was sometimes only skin deep. She was in therapy, but progress was pitifully slow -- she could wiggle her toes some now, but she couldn't lift her foot a millimeter without aid. She could not dance.

Rachel did her best to include Jennifer in the tales, but she always kept herself a little apart, contenting herself to just watch. Just because the girl didn't see a way she could be a part of the tales, that didn't stop Rachel from trying to find a way. The inspiration came to her one night just as she was going to bed.

"You want me to arrange a performance?" Jennifer lacked enthusiasm when Rachel proposed her idea the next day. "What kind of job is that?"

Rachel knelt beside her wheelchair and took her hand. "I once knew someone named Beatrice who you may remember as the woman I admired on the night I prayed to God that I might dance on the stage of a penny theatre. I haven't told you what happened to her. A few years later, she was in an auto accident which made her unable to dance. It broke her heart, but not as much as it pained her when the theatre building closed for a time and her players could no longer tell their stories and inspire others. Even though she could not dance, she was determined and found the funds to reopen the theater, because she knew that the true magic of the tale and the dance comes when it is shared with others."

The woman stood and motioned to the other children as they acted out one of their favorite stories. "Do you see how much they have worked to learn to dance and to memorize the tales? They are better for it, but I want them to feel the joy and magic of sharing what they have learned with others. I want them to know how it feels when I tell stories to you."

Jennifer looked at her hands, folded tightly in her lap, and simply nodded for a moment. Then she looked up at her friend with tears in her eyes. "I would like to do that," she said haltingly," but I want you to promise me something first."

"What's that?" the older woman asked, cocking her head.

The girl's eyes were filled with desire. "Someday, I want to feel the magic of performing a tale."

Rachel bit her lip. "I don't know ..." But then she looked into those eyes again and knew what she must do. "Yes," she said finally. "Together, we will find a way."

So now, twenty years have passed since that first small bazaar that showcased the budding talents of those original children. Jennifer wheeled herself expertly around the backyard, which had been arranged some years before to accommodate her chair. After several years of friendship, the young woman had moved in with Rachel. She was in her thirties now dressed in an outfit reminiscent of Rachel's worn pastel dress, welcoming parents and guests warmly, reprimanding wayward children playfully, talking in whispers to a man who came to all the bazaars and who Rachel didn't know, and basically doing what she had always done: making the bazaar a success.

Everyone got their plates, passed along the long table, taking this and that from the pot-luck dishes, and sat down to eat. The children had to hurry through and Jennifer reminded them that they still needed to change into their dance clothes. Rachel, as she customarily did, let the younger woman handle things, just enjoying the chance to chat with the parents about their children.

Jennifer was nervous on this occasion, even more than normal. She fussed over the children's outfits to the point that they sent her back outside just as the adults were finishing their dinners and assembling at the small section of rowed folding chairs. The young woman acted like she was sitting on a porcupine but Rachel laid a soothing hand gently on her leg and Jennifer tried to be more still.

As was customary, the children themselves had decided what tales would be told, and neither woman was surprised at their choices. The first tale was a favorite about a shy dragon that gets the courage to finally face a knight who becomes his friend. The second concerned circus animals and dental hygiene, while the third was a low-key love story. The parents and friends clapped wildly after each, the children alternately with beaming smiles and red cheeks. Even the mystery man grinned broadly, enjoying the show. Then, the grand moment had come and Jennifer nervously wheeled herself onto the little worn patch in the lawn that served as a stage. She took up a butterfly net and tried to be calm as a young boy came to the fore and announced the last tale.

''Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed the most wonderful dreams, and with all her heart, she wanted those dreams to come true. She would wake every morning full of excitement and anticipation about the coming day, knowing that this was the day when one of her precious dreams would come true. She would hope and work toward them, but sadly, she would wait, day after day, and her dreams would not come true.''

In the center of the make-shift stage, Jennifer sat in her chair, hunched over with a sad expression. Now and again, a child would toss a handkerchief into the air near her and she would bring up her net and thrash it wildly in the air, but the kerchief was never caught and the woman would slump again, sad and holding her net listlessly.

''One day, the girl met a little boy, who also dreamed dreams, but, unlike her dreams, his were very small and simple. For the girl who had always dreamed large things, the boy's dreams were so easy to accomplish, so she helped him and soon, his dreams were fulfilled.''

A young boy came into view, chasing handkerchiefs tossed above him, but having as much luck in catching them as the girl Jennifer played. As the boy came closer and closer to the woman, she took up her net and deftly caught the handkerchief with it. When the boy finally got his prize, he kissed Jennifer lightly on the cheek and ran off, leaving the slightly blushing woman in his wake.

''The boy ran off in joy and told the world about the girl who could catch dreams and had helped him. Soon, many little children came to the girl, begging her help in realizing their dreams. The little girl became so busy helping others, that she nearly forgot her own dreams in the excitement of helping others.''

The air around Jennifer was busy with colorful handkerchiefs, cheering children dancing about her as she bit her lower lip and flicked the butterfly net back and forth, gathering the flying bits of cloth as quickly as she could. As she caught each, Jennifer would offer a cheek to the child she gave the kerchief to and they would give her a kiss and run off. Again and again, the cycle would repeat, until the flow of children began to peter out.

''When the children had their dreams, the girl was left to herself, and she began to wonder again about her own dreams, so long forgotten. As she again pursued them, the dreams didn't seem so far off and with some effort, she was able now to accomplish them.''

A big white handkerchief was lofted into air, and with a couple of tries at it, Jennifer had it in her net. Another kerchief was caught, and another, and another. The woman smiled broadly as she held her small pile of cloth in her lap and a little boy beside her, kissed her a last time, and addressed the audience.

''It is good to dream dreams, even big dreams, but we must remember that life is not meant to benefit us alone. Sometimes we must help others accomplish their dreams and then ours become more attainable. Remember that it is through the generosity of God that we are able to dream at all, and by following the example of His Son, by helping others, we are ultimately helping ourselves.''

The children bowed and curtsied and Jennifer bent her body forward in the chair, accepting the wonderful applause and hoots and whistles from the people in the folding chairs. The woman beamed as she looked at Rachel, who wiped the tears from her cheeks and clapped all the harder for her friend who had waited so long and patiently.

The mess of the bazaar was picked up (mostly) and the families and friends and the mystery man had gone home, but still Jennifer was heady with the excitement of the day. "You were right!" she sang as they sat at the tiny kitchen table that night, finishing off a dish left by one of the families. "It is good to know the stories, but it is far better to tell them and see the way it inspires people. It really is magical!"

After Jennifer was in bed, Rachel sat up in her mother's old rocking chair that now sat beside her own bed. As she rocked, she thought of the story she had created for the younger woman and sighed. When was her butterfly net going to work? When would she catch her own dreams?

Five

"Wake up, sleepyhead!"

She was a little annoyed at Jennifer for waking her at the crack of dawn, but she always did, so there was little to complain about. If Rachel hadn't solved the problem by this time, there was no point in trying now. As she brought herself upright, she noticed another creak in her knee that she had not heard before, but she simply added it to the list of things that her body seemed to be complaining about. She took in a deep breath of the autumn air and let it out slowly, arching her back as she did so, and letting a variety of cracks and creaks noise themselves.

"How are you feeling?" The woman in the wheelchair beamed, almost giddy with some unexplained excitement.

"Oh, I don't know," Rachel replied. "How about a day older?"

Jennifer bit her lip excitedly and could barely hold still. "Actually, you should feel a whole year older!" From behind her back, the woman produced a tiny wrapped box, complete with a bow. "Happy Birthday!"

Rachel let out a sigh and slowly took the gift, She offered a little smile, but it didn't look very convincing. She was not looking forward to this. "Thank you," she said, a little sourly.

"Wow!" Jennifer exclaimed. "Sixty years! How does it feel?"

Rachel grimaced as she moved herself from the bed to her rocking chair. "It is kind of a pain," she replied, putting a supporting hand on her left lower back. "Right here, if you really want to know."

The younger woman just waved Rachel's lack of enthusiasm off, for she had enough joy for them both. "It is going to be a wonderful day!"

The old woman settled back into her chair and took another large breath. "I was actually hoping for a bit of a quiet day."

"Oh, you really don't mean that!" Jennifer was so jumpy with anticipation that she might have actually leapt out of her chair that morning. "I've got a special breakfast cooking, so you had better get cracking! You slept in a little late and the children will be coming in just a few hours."

Rachel sighed again and nodded slowly. "I'll have to give all of this up eventually, you know."

Jennifer cocked her head and thought about that for a moment. "Perhaps so," she observed, "but you aren't going to give it up today!" She winked at her old friend and wheeled herself out of the room.

After a hot shower and an excellent breakfast of all her favorites, Rachel was in far better spirits to face the day. She swept up the studio and began her stretching exercises, working out every stiff joint. It seemed to her that stretching was taken a lot longer these days, even somewhat longer than they had last month. Still, given some time, she was in excellent health and could still dance reasonably well.

Jennifer wheeled herself into the studio and watched the old woman move. Suddenly, a thought struck her. "Did you every open my gift?" Rachel allowed a sheepish look as she admitted that she hadn't and quickly went back to her bedroom to retrieve the tiny wrapped box.

Back in the studio, the old woman worked the wrapping open and then the box,. taking out what was inside. "Surprise!" the younger woman shouted.

"A key?" Rachel held it up carefully, holding it by only two fingers, as if it were dirty socks. An old skeleton key might have been nice, but this was a pretty common one, well used and a little rusty, too small for a door and probably only capable of opening a small padlock. She studied it a little, and then offered, "I don't know what to say."

Jennifer clapped her hands and wriggled in her seat. "Oh, you don't have to say anything!" Her eyes were sparkling as Rachel tried to decide what all the excitement was about. "This is going to be the best birthday ever!"

Rachel sighed loudly and nodded. "It will certainly be something..."

That day, the cooler of food on the doorstep was stuffed fuller than ever, with a small partially-thawed turkey, all the trimmings, and even a gallon of milk. Taped to the underside of the lid was the usual envelope, but it was thicker than normal. Written on the outside was a short note: 'I hope you have a very happy birthday!' As usual, it was unsigned and inside was the expected money, but this time far more than ever before. Jennifer took up counting the hundred-dollar bills when Rachel became tired and their eyes grew wider and wider. Finally, the sum was announced with excitement by the woman in the wheelchair. "Ten thousand dollars!" Rachel had always thought some generous person in the neighborhood had been giving her food and money all these years, but no one she knew could accomplish this feat! When Jennifer handed the envelope of money back to her, she held it rather nervously, feeling very undeserving.

The children arrived soon after and the day began. Rachel's schedule had never strayed over the years, and this group of children, of varying ages, probably could have gone through the entire day without Rachel's presence. The older children had been dancing under Rachel's care for five or six years, having a few bazaars under their belts, and spending a good amount of time working with the younger kids.

First off, Rachel, or one of the experienced children, would begin with a tale, hopefully one that the bulk of the children had not heard before. The older dancers would perform and the younger ones would watch with rapture, if the story were good. This day, Rachel lead the performance, which was a tale about three bears and a little girl named Goldilocks. Everyone laughed as a fourteen-year-old dancer played the role of the mischievous Goldy to perfection. Rachel stayed out of the limelight and played Momma Bear, enjoying giving the chance to shine to the younger folk. After all, she was really getting too old for the spotlight anyway.

Though it was still two months away, the children began practicing an intricate little dance that was to be performed at the next bazaar. Nine bodies whirled and floated across the floor of the studio, an older child gruffly correcting a younger one until Rachel gave him a look and he bowed his head and apologized. "When dancing the tales ceases to be a joy," the old woman said quietly, "then you know it is time to do something else for a while." The young man nodded obediently and sat down for a few minutes, properly chastened.

The old woman, who usually was in the thick of everything, stayed a little apart this day, perhaps because her birthday served to remind her that she was becoming old and wouldn't be able to dance forever. Other things came into her mind as well, bringing a tear or two, but she brushed them away and smiled as she watched her pupils press forward in their dance. There was no use, she thought to herself, in crying over things that were never meant to be.

Throughout the day, the children would take breaks and Rachel would tell them a story from the vast library of tales locked away in her mind. She moved a little slower in her advancing years, but she still captivated an audience with her vivid story-telling, punctuated by dance. The tales sometimes lasted a little longer than the attention of the youngest children, but they made the day go faster for all. Before anyone was ready, it was time to go home. The children stuffed down pieces of a birthday cake that Jennifer had prepared and began leaving, but not before the woman in the wheelchair whispered hurriedly in their ears and received hushed responses and nods in return.

After the studio was swept again, Jennifer appeared out of her room, dressed nicely. "You need to get out," she announced. "It's your birthday, after all."

Rachel reluctantly got herself ready, even though she was hoping for a quiet evening at home. She had learned long ago that it was futile to resist Jennifer's desires. The younger woman fired up her converted van, put Rachel securely in the passenger's seat, and sped away from home with purpose, seeming to operate according to some predetermined plan.

The first stop was at a very nice dress shop, where both women spent a happy hour browsing around. Rachel seemed taken with a colorful dress, not very suitable for dancing, but very fetching nevertheless. Of course, when the birthday girl saw the price tag, she reflexively put it back on the rack. Jennifer scolded her and reminded her of the massive amount of money that she had just gotten as a present, so the older woman nervously bought the dress and wore it right out of the store, feeling a little decadent.

Next, they pulled up at one of the nicest restaurants in town and had a wonderful dinner, complete with doting waiters that Rachel nearly paid off just to give the pair some peace. Jennifer seemed to be paying for this, though the older woman didn't quite know how, for she only worked for Rachel and got barely more than living expenses. "How are you affording all of this?"

Jennifer peered knowingly across her water glass, smiling slyly. "I have friends." This became terribly obvious as the pair were bid 'fare well' by the smiling owner of the restaurant, who looked awfully familiar, but Rachel could not place him in her mind.

The young woman moved the van toward home and Rachel sighed, "That was a very nice birthday evening! Thank you!"

Jennifer turned to her, as much as she could while driving, and smiled larger than Rachel had ever seen before. "It isn't over yet."

Back at home, Jennifer appeared from her room in her wheelchair again, dressed as if this were Bazaar Day. "You need to get into your theatre dress," she said flatly, struggling to remain as emotionless as possible.

"What?" The old woman squinted her eyes, trying to see a reason for this.

"Just do it," the younger woman insisted. "Oh, and don't forget your key."

Rachel stood before the mirror and looked dejectedly at herself. She was getting a little grizzled and hunched in her old age, which the fading but still beautiful pastel-colored dress made obvious. Actually, she pondered how much of a wonder it was that she still fit in it at all, seeing how her grandmother Jo had made and given it to her on her eighteenth birthday. She thought for a moment and realized that forty-two years had passed since that day, and she still desperately missed Jo and her color and life and her tales, only a small part of which Rachel was able to recall.

The dress, fitted for a young woman, was beginning to look like a flower sack on her, as Rachel's body was slowly withering away. Her daily dancing helped a great deal, but she wished she were still young and longed for a chance to live earlier days and to do it better. She cringed as she thought of Robert again, and wished she had defied her father and ran away to him, instead of accepting the life she had lived for so many years, losing so much. She could have started teaching dance so much earlier and could have provided for them both, but such 'coulds' were silly to think about, she reminded herself. She should be grateful for what she had and simply accept that you can't have everything you pray for.

Jennifer was getting impatient outside her bedroom door. "What are you doing? Getting ready for a date?"

The old woman didn't respond immediately. "Oh, it's starting to look that way." she said finally. "You aren't what I had in mind for a knight in shining armor, but I suppose you will do." Jennifer squeaked, and let a single tear fall, hoping that Rachel didn't suspect anything. She was terribly afraid one of the children had let on.

Rachel appeared at the doorway, twirled in her dress, and stopped, looking at herself and putting hands to lips. "This almost makes me feel like I am in college!"

"Good!" The younger woman brightened, but then remembered something. "Do you have your key?"

The old woman produced the rusty thing from her pocket. "I have no idea why you go on about it, but here it is."

Jennifer nodded, smiling. "Excellent. If we don't hurry, we will be late."

"Late?" Rachel repeated. "Late for what?"

The younger woman gave her trademark sly smile. "You will see."

Coats donned against the autumn night, they were back in Jennifer's van, motoring toward the middle of town. The shops, what few were still operating in the depressed downtown, were all closed and the streets were empty. This was a far cry from the city that Rachel had remembered from her childhood and it depressed her. Like herself, the crumbling inner city had only the past to look upon with fondness, and perhaps it too regretted some blunders of its own. The only lights came from ornate street-lamps and the occasional neon sign that either signaled a liquor bar, or a shopkeeper who had forgotten to turn off the lights.

The van ground to a halt before an abandoned building, windows boarded up and great carved wooden doors defaced by graffiti and bared with steel and padlocks. Rachel looked about with confusion and then looked at the woman in the driver's seat, who seemed to be having difficulty containing her emotions. "This is the place," Jennifer managed.

Rachel helped the younger woman get her wheelchair out of the van and put herself into it. Now what? the old woman wondered to herself as Jennifer wheeled up to one of the doors. "I think this is the one. Get your key."

Rachel fumbled in her pocket and produced the discolored thing, peering about her like some thief. "What are we doing?" she whispered, getting nervous.

"Just get this padlock off."

The door closed slowly and silently behind them of its own accord and the pair was momentarily in blackness. Rachel was wondering if some surprise party had been staged in this abandoned building, but when Jennifer found a light switch, the dim glow from one bare bulb illuminated only a dusty old lobby. Suddenly, Rachel knew the place, for she had visited it many times as a child. Many years ago, this had been the theatre where Beatrice and her penny-theatre troupe had performed. Jennifer looked at the old woman expectantly, hoping for a good response. The old woman looked about her, but instead of feeling happiness in the familiar place, she was depressed by how it had deteriorated over time, just like dreams and prayers, just like herself. She put on a fake smile and tried to look pleased for the woman in the wheelchair, who had obviously gone to much trouble so they could have this peek into the past. "We aren't getting into trouble being here, are we?"

Jennifer just ignored her, wheeling her chair to the doors that led to the theatre proper. "Let's get some seats."

The interior was much as she had remembered it and seemed to have aged only a little, but Rachel had little interest in it, for the theatre was filled with people, most young, and the racket of the children was getting louder as they squirmed in their seats waiting for the performance to begin. The old woman shook her head and pinched herself to see if she were dreaming.

The hall was already darkening for the show to begin, and it was all Rachel could do to keep up with Jennifer as her wheelchair coasted down the decline and they took seats on the front row. The old woman was nearly too busy looking around her with confusion to see or hear the youngish man step out into a pool of light on the stage and bow low. "Welcome to the penny theatre. Our first story is the tale of Rachel and her Knight in Shining Armor."

Rachel turned about sharply to face the stage. "What did he say?" The hall quieted as a group of eight people moved into the light, dressed in beautiful clothing, and took their places. Two woman sat on the stage and watched as the others played out a short tale, a few spinning and whirling expertly while the others moved about as best they could. "What is this?" she whispered, tugging at Jennifer's sleeve.

The woman brushed her off gently, tears in her eyes. "Just watch."

''Once upon a time, there was a girl named Rachel, who had an evil father and a wonderful grandmother named Jo. On her sixth birthday, Jo and Rachel sneaked away from the father's house and went to a magical place where people danced and told old, wondrous stories. Rachel loved it so much that she prayed that night for a chance, someday, to dance on that magical stage. She also prayed that a knight would come and rescue her from her evil father. But, after that wonderful night, the evil father kept Rachel locked in his house.''

''Jo would come to see Rachel whenever she could and tell her stories, and even sneak her out of the father's house to go to the magical theatre. When her father learned of this, Rachel was forbidden to talk to or even see her grandmother and soon Jo died of a broken heart, leaving the girl alone. The father hoped that this would be the end of stories and magical places, which he didn't believe in, but Rachel told herself the stories now, and practiced the magic in secret, believing that one day, God would answer her prayer to dance on the magical stage. All the while, she waited patiently for her knight to come and rescue her.''

The old woman began to tear as she saw her life unfold before her. She had thought the players looked familiar to her, and as the story progressed, she knew them all: these were those first children who had sat on her lawn and listened to her stories more than twenty years before. Two of the girls had gone on to dance in international ballet companies, but the rest took up other professions in life, and were obviously a bit rusty in their movements. All had come for this performance, which touched her heart.

On-stage, one of the women, obviously constrained in the role of young Rachel at home, danced and swirled as best she could in a tight spot of light, making a paper rose in her hands. With a sweep, the paper rose was gone and a living one had taken its place. The circle of light moved to the right and grew larger, the woman following and moving with larger sweeps and greater freedom. From the shadows, a man stepped, just watching the woman dance for a few minutes, and then joining her, their bodies moving together perfectly. With a spin, the girl's one rose became two and she stopped her dance just long enough to hand the new rose to the man, who portrayed Robert.

Suddenly, the stout man who played Rachel's father stepped into the light, tore the two dancers apart, and pulled the woman to the left side of the stage. The young Robert's dance began to slow and as the light on him faded, he came to a stop, head lowered, looking at the rose the woman had given him. The stout man circled the stolen woman like a vulture as she still tried to dance, but her pool of light was fading as well. The stout man tore the rose out of the woman's hand, threw onto the stage-floor and ground it to pieces with his foot. In despair, the woman gently touched the remains of the flower, as the man in the role of Rachel's father continued to circle her with menace. As he moved more quickly, the woman reached her hands toward heaven in appeal, but the light went out and the woman was frozen in the stance.

The old woman could not pull her eyes from the stage as she saw the stout man walked out of the dim light, leaving the frozen woman portraying Rachel alone. A moment later, the spot-light picked out the man playing Robert, who danced dejected across the stage, looking at his rose. With a start, he saw the woman, looking just like Betadin in the old tale, and took her hand. Falteringly, the woman began to move and, with the man, began again to dance. The man spun about and his rose became two and he gave the new rose to the woman. Three players marched onto the stage and took the man, groping to stay with the woman, out of the light.

''Bombs burst and light flashed as Robert shared the magical tales with his fellow soldiers, inspiring them as Rachel had inspired him. With new courage, they all pressed forward and performed their mission deep within the hold of the enemy. A helicopter came into view and settled just away from the hold and waited for the soldiers to emerge. With another man, Robert pulled one injured soldier out of the burning fortress, then another and another. The men huddled together, under the wash of the helicopter blades, but only one more man stumbled out. When he reached the helicopter, the assembled men counted themselves, but Robert was no where to be found. Then, the rumbling of charges exploding deep within the keep drove the men into the helicopter and away. The fortress, with Robert still inside, struggling to save another friend, exploded in a fireball that lit up the night.''

The man playing Robert ran twice from the pool of light into darkness, pulling men back into the light. Strangely, the men he brought back were old, and dressed seriously in suits. One last time, he jerked an oldish man into the light, and ran into blackness. For a moment, the suited men just stood in the light, clutching roses that the man had put into their hands. Suddenly, the audience gave a noise of surprise as all the lights in the hall snapped on with full intensity, blinding in comparison with the darkness they had become accustomed to.

Rachel was still blinking when Jennifer took her hand and began wheeling them forward. "Let's go!" she said with excitement.

The dazed old woman found herself on-stage with Jennifer, standing beside the three old men in suits that seemed to step out of the performance. The tallest smiled and stepped forward, extending his hand. "Hello. My name is William."

Rachel squinted as she looked into his eyes. "You are the owner of that restaurant we went to today!"

"Yes," the man said, eyes beaming, "though that wasn't the first time we have crossed paths."

The old woman's eyes grew wide as she remembered other times she had seen him. "Oh, my! You were the man at all of those bazaars! I never had a chance to talk to you..."

The man smiled even broader. "Actually, I made sure you never got an opportunity. You have done an incredible thing with those bazaars." Rachel finally took his hand, but instead of shaking it, the man just held it and put his other hand atop hers. "I am really very honored to meet you at last."

He introduced her to the two men standing with him. "We were the three men Robert managed to save before he died in the explosion," the tall man explained. Then he motioned to a small group of people and they crowded around Rachel and William. He explained that these were his children and their children and their children. The old man's voiced cracked as he said. "I just wanted them to see and meet the woman who saved me and made our family possible."

Rachel gave a confused look. "How did I save you?"

"It was you who told Robert all of those stories and taught him courage and love. He shared those stories with us and, in the end, he showed us how much those things meant to him when he pulled us out of that burning building." Tears were streaming down his face as he hugged his family close. "You gave Robert a wonderful gift and he passed that gift on to us. Thank you for letting me know my children and letting me see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

There was a tight group hug that made Rachel feel a little uncomfortable, but tears began springing up in her eyes as she accepted the love anyway. That done, the man's family moved back to their seats in the hall and William presented the old woman with a rose. "You might not know, but the roses represent the magical gift of your tales and your dance that inspire all who witness it. Long ago, your father took the gift from you, but in a smelly army tent, our friend Robert gave that gift of love back. As his agent, It is my honor to give this rose to you, since Robert cannot do it himself."

The assembled crowd cheered as Rachel held the rose tightly against her heart, tears streaming down her face.

The players on-stage each took a rose from the woman who played the role of Rachel, crossed the stage, and one by one, hugged and kissed their old tutor. Rachel looked into each one's eyes and saw in them the children who begged her to tell them a story so long ago. Last of all, Jennifer wheeled herself to her dear friend and the old woman crouched to accept a kiss and a hug from her. "This is such a wonderful birthday present!" Rachel whispered.

"Yes," Jennifer replied, her eyes glistening. "It will be."

Men, women, and children began rising from their seats in the audience and making their way forward, climbing stairs until they were on-stage. Each received a rose from the woman who played Rachel and walked across the stage to the emotional woman who waited to hug and kiss them. Some gave her grateful words in their own way, but most couldn't speak as they wept and clung to their mentor. Every face was familiar and brought back wonderful memories for Rachel, young students who had grown to be such wonderful people, all inspired by her life and by the tales she told. To the old woman, it seemed to go by quickly, but the procession of former students lasted nearly an hour.

When the last children, the ones she was still teaching and telling stories to that day, had retaken their seats, William came forward once again and addressed the audience. "Just before that last mission, Robert made me swear that I would care for you, Rachel, if anything happened to him. He dearly wanted to repay you for all you had done for him!" He turned to Rachel, who was trying to compose herself. "It has been our pleasure," he indicated himself and the two men with him, "to provide you with food and money these last few years and to watch you bless the lives of all these wonderful children. I can think of no one more deserving of our gifts." William then turned to face the audience again. "For you, Rachel, we give three gifts that, in some small way show you our gratitude for all you have given us. The restaurant that you ate at this evening, and a dozen more like them in cities across the globe, are yours: all of the profits from their operation are yours to spend as you see fit." A great cheer went up from the crowd and Rachel blinked with astonishment. "You will never want for food or money again!

"For the second gift, we have purchased for you this theatre in which we are met together. The bazaars have been getting terribly crowded lately, so we though it would be best to hold them here from now on. The workers will start tomorrow, restoring this historic hall to its original grandeur!"

Another burst of cheers came from the audience, and William and his companions made their way off stage. Rachel looked about, confused. Only Jennifer was left on the otherwise empty stage. The younger woman wheeled herself up to Rachel and took her hand. Crouching down, Rachel whispered, "I thought there were three gifts."

Jennifer looked up at her with shining eyes. "We can never repay you for all you have done. We thought long and hard for something else to give you, but we were stumped until last night." She paused to take a breath. "This is your third gift: we decided to help God answer your prayer." The woman propelled her chair back out of the spotlight.

Rachel stood alone in the pool of light, feeling a little small in her dress made of cloth dyed in every pastel color there was. The audience waited patiently as the old woman just stood there, awed by the moment. She looked down at the rose she still held in her hand and admitted to herself that this world was indeed a very magical place for those who believed it could be so. Curtsying low, Rachel announced the next tale, and with a broad smile and glistening cheeks, she began to dance.

Six

The trellis outside of Rachel's bedroom window was still as rickety as ever, but the sturdy wooden ladder placed beside it would serve the woman better tonight. She climbed up as quietly as she could, not wanting to worry Jennifer about what she was doing.

As she sat in her favorite spot, her knees pulled up close, Rachel looked up at the glittering canopy of stars above her and just cried. There were no more wishes to pray for, only grateful thanks to be offered to God. She had nearly given up hope a thousand times, but always, some part of her believed that her prayers and dreams would somehow come true. Tonight, she had danced on the stage of the penny theatre, and she would have many more opportunities, she hoped. A chill wind blew up from downtown, and she looked at the tall buildings and knew that nestled among them was her theatre, soon to be again that magical place where people could come and hear the stories and feel the magic and the joys of inspiration. She breathed in deeply and dreamed of the wonderful possibilities.

The brisk wind nearly tore the budding rose out of her hand, but she clutched it tighter, determined not to lose it. She thought back on her glorious day and realized that her knight in shining armor had been with her through all the years, and she had never recognized him. He really had saved her from the cold stone that her father had convinced her to become. And even though he was not there, his influence was all about her and had made this most blessed of all nights possible. She couldn't resist another urge to weep.

The world truly was a wonderful place, full of opportunities just waiting for dreamers to discover them. There is so much more than what can fit inside of a television screen or in the finite mind of thoughtless or uncaring people. There is so much that cannot be bought with money, and often those things are the most worthwhile and carry with them joys beyond price. There is far too little time to waste on cruelty or greed or frivolous possessions; the world is in far greater need of faith, and hope, and charity, and love.

It is our uniqueness that helps these things come out, for only when we can truly be ourselves, our best selves, we finally show forth our capacity as children of God. Conformity within a crowd can only rob us of that tiny light of Godliness within each of us, for each gift that He gives us is different. Is He not the most unique, the most different individual there is?

With another deep breath, Rachel looked up at the incredible blaze of light around her and the glorious Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other. Just like in her vision as a child, she saw God moving along the glittering path, surveying the boundless bounty of the world. But this time, He didn't walk alone.

''There beside the Great Creator, a knight strode, his armor a blaze of shining silver and gold. As he came nearer, he took off the ornate helmet and she could see his face clearly, smiling down on her from above. Robert looked just as he had in that dusty dance hall, standing like Ascendus before her Betadin, and it was as if he were saying the same words as he said then, his love grown greater with the passing years. From behind his back, he revealed a large red rose. "I love you," he mouthed soundlessly. "I'll be waiting for you!"''

''A Hand touched the young knight's shoulder, and the two figures continued their walk. And God, the One who made it all possible, took up His list 'of things to do' and checked off Rachel's childhood request. Turning to look down at His beloved daughter, God smiled and said, "I'll be waiting, too."''

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Topic revision: r2 - 2019-07-25 - JasonNemrow
 
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