The woman came into the Park for the last time as evening fell. She knew that it was the last time because all day she had felt herself fading. It was less a feeling of weariness than one of simply becoming empty. That was it; she was emptied out. She was fading the way dusk was leaching the autumn color from the trees above her head.
There was a certain relief involved. A feeling of shedding burdens; of freeing herself, finally, from duty's tiresome demands. She supposed she ought to feel guilty about that; she had always been a responsible person. But she did not feel guilty. And she was leaving nothing behind that could not be handled as well by others.
She walked slowly, admiring the darkening boles of trees that had been saplings when she too was young. She walked slowly because the ground was hard, she knew from harsh experience, and she was more brittle than she'd been in years gone by. Still, her hip had healed quickly and well, surprising the doctor, and she had been been proud of being able to get around again without the use of a walker or cane. She had been proud of maintaining her independence in the face of odds that would, she knew, have defeated a lesser woman.
So she walked steadily on without a limp, her pace indicative of a certain dignity rather than the fact that it still hurt. She walked slowly even though a part of her, now, was beginning to feel light enough to run.
She was alone because she had always been alone. In the beginning -- before she knew what it was to dream -- it had been terrible. But as the years passed and it became clear that no one was going to rescue her from her spinsterhood, the aloneness had become one with the dream and she'd learned to embrace both as she embraced life itself. She'd filled up her life then with books and music, art and writings of her own... And eventually she was surprised by others' surprise at finding her content in her aloneness -- as if the two terms were mutually exclusive. Of course she was alone. Being alone was what she did best. And even now, she saw, it was for the best. There was no one she need wound with her farewell.
Oh, there had been friends. Some were single; some had families; all were different, and yet despite their differences all had been Dreamers. Like her. But one by one, through the years, they had fallen away... like the leaves that brushed by her ankles now. She was the only one of them left. Had they, she wondered idly, felt at the end this translucent lightness of spirit?
The Park was darkening now; old-fashioned globe streetlamps glowed here and there along the paths and roadways. She avoided these areas of light. She had no fear of anything that might lurk in the dark places. The Park was safer now, decades into the new millenium, than it had been when the dream was born. The air was clear, the gardens and meadows as clean and well-tended as the streets beyond the gates. There was a feeling of welcome. Of refuge.
It suited her that it should be so -- here, where it was all supposed to have begun. She'd come often, through her long life; watched the changes, counting the passing of the seasons, read poetry beneath the sheltering elms. In the beginning, the friends had come too; and with them she has known beauty and poetry and a certain peculiar happiness that comes with the sharing of one's dream.
Only it hadn't been one dream... or just one dreamer, dreaming it. The story, the romance that had begun so simply, became a vision; an ideal of gentleness in a world gone a little mad. It found a home with those who had been a little bruised by life; and who, for reasons best known to themselves, could nurture and protect it for the beautiful thing that it was. It had an importance beyond the creation of a magical hero and his love; something to do with their world hidden under this Park, and stretching out beneath the City itself. It overtook its unsuspecting creators; and in growing beyond them, somehow became more than the sum of all of its parts. And wasn't that, the woman reflected, one definition of life itself?
Speculation and whimsy! She smiled at herself... and far now from prying eyes and the clamor of passing traffic, she leaned back against a welcoming old tree and eased herself to the ground. Burrs and twigs were sure to stick to the weave of her dress but she realized, happily, that she'd come beyond caring.
It was night now. She could not see the moon, but pictured it hanging low and full just above the trees... It was night, yet in her mind she saw the Park not as it was tonight but as it had been, bright with sun and summer. She and her friends had come here dreaming like children of an enchanted place; and hoping that, like Brigadoon, it would take notice of their specialness and offer up some proof of its existence. It had been such a lovely illusion, this story of world whose folk were kind to one another; who could say the things that ought to be said... and say them beautifully. A place where words like "forever" and "always" meant something... but she and her friends, the other Dreamers, had tried very hard to create it for themselves.
Most of the Sensible People in the world didn't know how to dream -- not properly or with any sort of conviction, she thought with a remnant of scorn. But where, after all, had her own dreams fled -- and those of her friends?
They were all gone now, her fellow Dreamers. Let the burden of their hopes -- or illusions -- pass to someone else.
Once upon a time she had believed in the creative power of dreams. Was it possible, she wondered now, to quietly wish herself out of this life, as she had once wished the Hero and his Lady into it? For she was weary now, with a weariness wholly unconnected to her body or its needs. That part of her which had been growing lighter was nearly gone. She felt, in some strsnge way, as though the breeze itself might begin to pass through her. She was glad to be sitting down, although there was no pain; glad to feel the rough bark of the tree cradling her back. Drowsy as a child in its embrace, she could barely keep her eyes open. She tried to concentrate on recapturing the dreams she had dreamed in her youth.
She had no idea how long she'd been sitting there when, gradually, she became aware of a presence nearby. She lifted her head and saw, to her surprise, a tall figure standing a little distance away. She had to blink to make sure; he'd made no noise coming through the autumn leaves, and was so still that it was hard to make him out, dark against the dark. She felt a stirring of resentment, followed by wry amusement. So this is how it's going to end after all, she thought. The headlines would read, "Elderly Eccentric Wanders Into Park; Killed by Unknown Assailant."
The figure seemed to drift toward her, and she had a vague impression of something that brushed the ground as he walked. A cape? A cloak? Who on earth wore a cloak in this day and age? She leaned her head back against the treetrunk (it was the only was she could keep from nodding off) and waited, almost disinterestedly, to see what was going to happen next.
He (for she felt sure it was a man and not a woman) paused a moment, looking down at her as if from a great height. Then he knelt -- slowly, careful not to startle her. She noticed that his hooded head was still higher than her own, and thought irrelevantly that this must mean that he was very tall. It was too dark for her to see his face, but she had the feeling that he was studying her intently.
"Hello," he said, in a warm low voice.
She let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She felt no fear, and wondered why. Shouldn't she be afraid? "Hello," she said reluctantly.
"What are you doing?"
He didn't ask, Waiting for what? Instead, after the briefest hesitation, he said, "Do you need help?"
"Not for this," she said cryptically; wanting him to go away, wishing that his soft voice would stop drawing answers from her. If he didn't mean to murder her, then why didn't he just go on about his business and leave her in peace?
He asked, "Why have you come here?"
She shrugged. "Where else?" Her voice, to her own ears, sounded faint and thin. "Where else would I go?"
"I understand." And he nodded just as though he did. "In the end, it is the best place."
His voice was as deep as the sea, and soft as the rustling of leaves overhead. There was... something familiar about it. It seemed to be a voice she'd heard before somewhere. An idea teased round the edges of her awareness, and was as quickly gone. Her inability follow it irritated her. She said, "Excuse me" -- not caring if she were rude -- "I came here to be alone."
"You can be alone anywhere," he pointed out. "And that is not why you came."
She was too weary to argue, and at this point it couldn't possibly make any difference. She stared into the crouching shade where she imagined eyes must be. "I'm not afraid," she warned.
"I can see that," he answered, with a profound and disarming respect. "But you look as if you might be very tired."
"Sleepy," she corrected him, sounding peevish even to herself. "I'm just... sleepy, that's all."
"You've worked hard."
His unexpected sympathy brought tears to her eyes. And she thought, astonished, How long has it been since that happened? Who is this stranger, that he can make me weep for no reason? -- And what gives him the right? "What would you know about that?"
"You dreamed dreams," he said. "I know."
Perhaps in some strange way he did. She sighed, her eyes threatening to close once more. A marvelous lethargy warmed her and she leaned more heavily into the supporting trunk. In a moment, she suspected she might become a part of the tree itself. It might not be such a bad thing -- to spend eternity in the quiet of this wild place...
His voice recalled her to the present. "But that isn't the eternity you hoped to create for yourself, is it?"
Her eyes opened wide. He'd spoken calmly, just as though it ought to make sense. "What do you mean?"
"You would still be alone."
She had to force the words out. "I've always been alone."
He leaned toward her and she saw, drifting free of his hood, gold-red strands of his long hair. When he spoke again his voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Do you want to be?"
Tears scalded her face, as though they'd been waiting a long time for such a question. She wiped them way, unwittingly smudging one withered chek. "Not any more," she confessed, feeling the only the truth could be important now. "But I don't know how to be anything else."
"But if there were time, and a place where you could learn?"
"It's too late now. I'm old."
"No," he said simply. "You only need to rest a little."
"I guess I should know whether or not I'm old," she snapped. Her voice sounded small and cranky and she supposed that now, at the last, her hearing was finally going too.
"I know a place where you can rest."
The offer danced on the crisp night air. She felt as though she couldn't breathe. "Am I dying now?" she demanded. "Is that who you are?"
The notion seemed to amuse him, and he chuckled softly. Then, reaching up, he pulled the heavy hood back onto his shoulders. Pale moonlight, falling through the branches, gilded the mane of his hair and drew stark shadows over the prominent bones of his face. But not even this could obscure the sapphire-blue of his deepset waiting eyes. His mouth, with its cleft cat-like upper lip, was smiling slightly and she caught the glint of sharp canines. He said, "You see?"
She lay against the tree gazing up into his strong leonine face, knowing he was real finally; knowing it now as she had in the beginning. He was so beautiful, in his way, that it almost hurt to look at him. Cloaked or not, how could she ever have failed to recognize him? She said, trusting him but not herself, "Am I dreaming you?"
He shook his head. The wild hair shimmered over his broad shoulders.
"Well," she asked (as she remembered a story-child once asking), "then are you dreaming me?"
"Perhaps we dream each other," he suggested.
"But if you're here, then am I...?"
"Dreamers never die," he reproached her gently, as though it were merely a lesson she'd forgotten. "They only go on dreaming... in another place, perhaps, or in a different direction."
"Then," she said, "wasn't any of it real?" All the troubles and the triumphs, the struggle and the strife? She felt those years begin to fall away from her. "Or is it over now... the being-real part?"
"No," he said, his quiet voice still smiling. "You know why."
She blinked. "Why?"
"Because," he coached her patiently, "`once you are Real...'"
"` -- you can't become unreal again,'" she breathed. "`It lasts for always'?"
He nodded, and she beamed like a child at his approval. "You see," he said, "we gave you some of the answers."
"I just needed time... to figure out the questions."
"You can't really die," he pointed out, "as long as you still have questions."
Nevertheless she felt the brief excitement of discovery beginning to fade; and herself along with it. He seemed to loom suddenly larger, and she thought that perhaps he had leaned closer fearing she might faint. She said, "I'll be all right," although the tree-bark was now unaccountably bruising her back.
"I know," he nodded. "Tell me your name."
She remembered what people had called her, all the years of her life. As a name it suddenly seemed worn out and used up, and she didn't want to tell it to him. Her mind went back, instead, to that story-child she'd written into her dream and his world once upon a time; a small character she had particularly loved, whose name was still fresh and untarnished and full of possibilities. "Naomi," she said drowsily, and waited for him to contradict her.
"That's beautiful," he said sincerely, "Naomi." And for an instant, as it lingered on the air, it was indeed musical and bright with promise.
"You're very tired," he said softly, watching her eyelids droop. Her breathing was barely perceptible to him. "Let me take you to another place."
Her head nodded with something like sleepiness. She struggled upright. "Will it be nice?"
"It will be wonderful."
"And the others?"
He didn't ask, What others? "Safe, all of them," he murmured. "Waiting for you there."
"Can we stay for always?"
"For always," he promised.
A breeze lifted stray gossamer strands across his face. With a great effort of will she reached up to brush them aside... and stopped in frozen wonderment. For it was not her own veined and bony hand she saw beside his tawny cheek -- but someone else's, small and plump and dimpled across the back.
"Naomi," he said, "it's time to come in now."
"I waited a long time," she quavered, her tear-bright eyes falling closed; and would have crumpled sideways, were it not for his encircling arm.
"So did we," he whispered, gathering her up.
It wasn't far now to the home tunnels. He moved with a long and even stride that lulled the small burden in his arms.
Father had been waiting for him just inside the Park entrance. "Ah, Vincent," he'd called out softly -- startling his son, for Jacob Wells seldom ventured this close to the surface. Leaning heavily on a stout walking-stick, he watched the gate rumble securely into place. "Found another one, have you?"
The soft light silvered his beard as he peered down into the enfolding cloak. There a little child lay sleeping, her hair as blonde as buttercups and one rosy cheek smudged with dirt. Father shook his head, sadly. "Where do they all come from, do you suppose?"
The question had been a rhetorical one, and Vincent was relieved not to have to venture a reply. After some brief discussion of arrangements to be made on the morrow they had parted; Father to resume his nightly rounds of their sleeping world, and Vincent to put the new arrival to bed.
He'd decided not to waken Mary -- not at this hour. But not to worry; he knew that Catherine wouldn't object to a small guest in their chamber. The nursery-orphans were always as welcome there as her own children.
But... where do they all come from, do you suppose? Vincent thought of some of the others who'd come to them in this same fashion. Laurie and Barbara... Roy, Ronnie and Linda. He wondered if Catherine had begun to feel curious about the origin of some of these little refugees. Almost certainly, Father didn't; preoccupied with clothing and feeding and caring for them all, miracles were still largely undreamt of in his philosophy. But in the end, it was hardly important. It didn't affect the spirit of love that protected them all in this safe haven.
His pace slowing, Vincent gazed down at the tiny dreamer cradled in his arms. She would sleep well tonight, exhausted from her journey.
We create that journey for each other, Catherine had told him once in a dream. Remembering all he'd seen -- all he'd shared -- in the Park tonight, he wasn't sure, even now, that he understood... yet it seemed he was inextricably caught up in some grand design whose end he could only imagine.
He paused in the quiet passage, a tall shadow haloed in candlelight. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he might never learn what aspects of his life -- all he knew and loved, here Below -- these dreamers had somehow helped to create. Perhaps they weren't sure, themselves. He only sensed that they were as crucial to his existence, as he seemed to be to theirs. And each time he made the choice to bring one more Below, he couldn't help but wonder what would happen, once there were no more of them left in the World.
But if life was a journey they could all create for one another, Vincent knew he could do no less than to go on trying to return the favor. And so he would be there, waiting in the Park, for the dreamers who found their way home.
He walked on toward the welcoming light from his own chamber, where Catherine was waiting. Together they would put this little one to bed. She would waken here, safe, in the morning.
* The author wishes to thank Margery Williams (again) for The Velveteen Rabbit.