She was remarkably beautiful for one so old. Instead of aging out of her loveliness as so many did she had retained it, and it had changed and matured along with her. Though her hair, once the burnished color of sun-struck honey, had whitened with time it still fell past her waist in loose, fine waves. Sometimes she would allow Melina to plait it. Melina loved the feel of the grandmother's hair, running like dry water through her fingers, caressing them and whispering secrets to her fingertips. As she braided the old woman would tell her tales, weaving her words like Melina wove her hair, laying strand after strand of glistening prose into a neat, even pattern.
The grandmother was a wonderful storyteller, and had been as far back as Melina could remember. As a little one Melina had nestled upon the old woman's lap and heard her tales, sometimes fanciful, sometimes sorrowful, and laughed or cried as was proper. As an older child Melina had sat with the grandmother, spinning or weaving as she listened to the stories. And now - nearly grown into adulthood - Melina braided the old woman's hair, gently, and reveled in the tales that were twice as potent now that her own memories were entwined with them as well.
Melina was never entirely sure whether the old woman's fables were true or not. But it did not matter - nothing mattered but the beauty of the storyteller's stories when she began. Through her words Melina felt transported, as if she did not quite sit, plaiting her grandmother's hair - as if she really walked the golden paths of the forest, or traversed the palaces of kings, or painstakingly climbed the steeps of mountains. When the grandmother began to speak the feebleness of her voice was soon forgotten, lost in the surging power behind her words.
She was speaking now. Her tale was an old, oft-told one, one of Melina's favourites. Though she had heard it before still she was caught up in its magic - as transfixed as if it were the first time she had heard the story. Closing her eyes, she let her fingers work nimbly of their own accord as she lost herself in the grandmother's words. It was a simple enough story, but the skills of the old woman had made its very simplicity glitter. Melina listened raptly as the grandmother spoke, spinning her tale as delicately and beautifully as a glass-blower at his art. Only when the old woman finished the tale did Melina allow herself to breathe fully, exhaling deeply, a deep sigh of satisfaction.
"Thank you," she murmured, tying off the end of the silvery-white braid and reaching forward to grip the old woman's shoulders in a quick, loving embrace. "It was beautifully done, Grandmama, and I thank you for it."
The grandmother turned to Melina then, her crystalline eyes touched with the joy and the sorrow of the tale she had just finished. "You are always welcome, daughter of my daughter. As long as you wish to listen to an old woman's stories, they are yours."
"Always, Grandmama, always."
Melina rose and lit the tapers on the table before them. The room was fast darkening as the sun dipped lower and lower into the sky outside; the cheery light of the candleflame warmed the room, bringing life and light back to it. They were beautiful candles, and nearly as much a part of Melina's memories of her grandmother as the grandmother's stories were. There was a pair of them: tall tapers formed lovingly into the shape of bristling pinecones, nestled into intricately carved silver candle-holders. They were silver, and leaf-shaped, created with all the love that a fine craftsman has for his craft.
She returned to her seat by the grandmother as the soft, warm glow began to pervade the darkening room and laid a hand on the older woman's knee. "Is there a story to the candle-holders, Grandmama?"
The grandmother laughed softly. "There is a story to everything, Melina-mine."
"But the candlesticks, Grandmama? Is there a story that belongs with them?"
The old woman was silent, gazing past Melina into the shadowy depths of some other reality which Melina could not penetrate. The room hummed with stillness, expectant stillness, and Melina instinctively knew that her words had struck a chord within the grandmother. So there was a story to be told, after all.
"The tapers were given to me by your grandfather," she said simply. "He was a candlemaker, skilled in the art like few are. He could tease his waxes into any shape he wished - or nearly so."
"Go on," Melina encouraged when the grandmother did not continue.
"The candle-holders were his mother's. I loved them, and when your grandfather saw my love, he gave them to me, with the new-made candles, on the day we were wed. I have cherished them since then."
Melina stared at the grandmother in amazement. "But would they not have burned away by now, Grandmama?"
The old woman shook her head. "No, daughter of my daughter. I have rarely lit them - but now I am coming to the end of my days, and so I may get as much delight from the candles as I can before I am gone." Melina's lips tightened and she blinked rapidly. She had no wish to lose the dearest friend she had, and dreaded the day when the light of the storyteller would dim and fade from her life.
As if reading her granddaughter's thoughts, the old woman smiled and laid her light, wrinkled hand upon Melina's stronger one. "You must remember the stories, and tell them when I am gone, Melina-mine. Through you they will live."
Her words rang clearly through the stillness of the room, like a single golden note from a golden hunting-horn, shattering Melina's calm with their very complacency. She felt her eyes begin to tingle and she closed them against the tears that were threatening to spill over and fall in burning rivulets. The tears pricked at her closed eyelids, fighting to free themselves.
"I don't want to tell the stories, Grandmama," she whispered, her voice more broken than she wished it to be. "They are your stories - yours, Grandmama, not mine."
The grandmother reached forward her other hand to lift Melina's chin. Melina opened her eyes, her vision blurring in a rush of quiet tears that fell like rain onto her hands and her grandmother's. "Nothing in this world is ever ours alone, daughter of my daughter," the old woman said gently. "God puts us upon this earth to share. Thus I have shared my tales with you - and so shall you share them with your children, and their children after them, as I have done."
The candlelight flickered, casting shadows into the corners that darted and whirled in a dance that only they themselves understood. Melina watched them - she could not look at the calm, serene face of her grandmother, not yet.
"Will you share them, Melina-mine?" The old woman's words were soft, caressing, but they pierced Melina deeply. She choked back a sob, took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied:
"I will share them, Grandmama. I will not - I will never be able tell them as you do, but I will share them as I may."
The grandmother smiled, and the warmth of her smile filled the jagged emptiness Melina had felt a moment before. Melina returned the smile tentatively, smiling wanly through her tears. "Rest now, Grandmama," she whispered. "Later, I will learn the tales."
Melina sat with the grandmother each day after, until the days began to lengthen and the first flowers to peek from their green sheathes. Through the long, golden afternoons and into the star-speckled nights they talked, the old woman weaving story after story for Melina and Melina repeating them back to her, at first falteringly, but stronger with each telling. Soon Melina's words began to glimmer with a faint echo of the grandmother's grace, and the old woman looked upon the smiling face of her granddaughter with gentle pleasure.
Each night the pinecone-tapers were lit, and each night the merrily-burning wicks slid closer to the silver holders, steadily becoming shorter and shorter. The grandmother, too, grew frailer and more delicate with each passing day. Melina could not escape seeing the changes, and cried bitterly to herself when the old woman had gone to sleep. But in the days the stories helped her, healed her.
It was a night in early summer, with a warm breeze teasing its way in through the cracks in the windows, that the grandmother finished her storytelling. "You have all of the stories now," she told Melina, smiling her gentle smile. "I have told you all of them that I know. Now they are yours to keep, and to add to, and to share."
The candles on the table guttered sharply, and Melina noted with alarm that they were nearing their ends. "I will get new candles, Grandmama," she said, and rose.
"No, Melina-mine," the grandmother said softly. She pulled Melina back into her seat and placed a tiny, frail hand upon her granddaughter's knee. "We will not need new candles, not tonight."
Melina read the old woman's meaning in her face and started forward, pleading. "No, Grandmama. I need you still - can you not stay a little while longer?"
The old woman shook her head, crystal-blue eyes bright with tears, but calm. "You do not need me anymore, daughter of my daughter. You have the stories - you know them as well as I do. That part of me you will keep with you, and share. But you must let me go, Melina-mine."
Her tears flowed freely, running warmly down her cheeks, falling into her lap, and Melina leaned her head forward and let them fall. The grandmother reached a hand to her shoulder in comfort, but both were silent. After a time the grandmother slid back, and Melina took the old woman's hand in her own. The hand was cold.
As Melina's sobs began in earnest the candlelight flickered and died. The yellowish beeswax had melted down until there was nothing left, running over the silver candle-holders and onto the wooden table beneath.
She left the house then, and walked into the darkened streets. The stars above twinkled in comfort, and it was as though she could hear her grandmother's voice, rising and falling in the cadences of the storyteller. The night air calmed her, soothed her, and she whispered to herself the words of the stories as they passed through her mind, letting her words be borne aloft upon the night breeze.
She walked through the night. As dawn broke she found herself back within the village, near the house of the grandmother. As she neared the house she found a small child - a girl, no more than eight - upon the doorstep, and called to her, asking her purpose.
"The storyteller does not answer my knock," the girl said plaintively, looking at Melina with large eyes the color of the summer sky. "Has she gone away?"
"She has gone away - a long way away," Melina said, and hesitated. "I am her granddaughter. She told you her stories, then?"
The girl nodded, and Melina knelt in the dust of the road, facing the blue-eyed stranger solemnly. "Many of her tales she told to me. If you like, I can tell them to you. My words have not the magic that hers did - but the stories are the same."
"Please," the child said, and a smile began to form as she looked expectantly up at Melina. "Please, do."
And so Melina told the stories. The child came to her day after day, as Melina had gone to her grandmother, until all the tales were told. But Melina continued to tell the stories - to the children of the village and, eventually, to her own children and her children's children. As she told them she saw again the grandmother, white-haired and beautiful, and heard her melodious voice. And as she shared the tales the memories grew, and matured, and Melina realized that her grandmother had been right: in each tale she told Melina felt the old woman's presence. Through the stories, the grandmother lived; and through Melina, the stories lived.