If you lived out here with the last two years burnt away into drought, you might have found yourself half awake before dawn a few weeks ago, shaken out of sleep by a soft and unfamiliar stirring in the darkness outside.

Odd, forgotten clues: Windowglass trembling, muffled staccato against the roof. Something sloshed through the back alley, break truck or taxi cab, and for this long-time city kid, that was it, that breathy hiss of wet tires rolling. That was the song of the first rain.

At the Raiders game in Oakland the other day, the announcer officially declared it raining and the spectators burst into cheers. Moist-faced strangers smiled at one another from under umbrellas, sharing it. A visitor from Washington, out here for what he hopes would be a sunny Christmas, gazed glumly out the window of his breakfast cafe: "It's pouring," he grumped, and beside him an elderly lady quivered in delight.

"I know," she said. "Isn't it wonderful?"

The drought is not over, will not be over for a long time. The drought information center says that in order to recover completely, California needs a rainfall 25 per cent havier than average this year plus two more years of normal rain.

Rationing continues - voluntary in some places, mandatory in others.

But it is raining in San Francisco, raining in the Central Valley, raining in the moonscape craters up north that used to be a reservoir. It is showing in the Sierra Nevadas. That low chalk sky finally stopped taunting and let go with a good winter rain.

Up north on the Mad River, Ruth Dam is spilling for the first time in two years. Nearby, the city of Eureka has gone off rationing. The brackish water of the Sacramento Delta, newly freshened by a rain, is filling the San Luis Reservoir - from 331,707 acre-feet last week to 364,701 acre-feet today. The reservoir usually holds two million acre-feet of water.

You can read out here about East Coast rains - torrential, tireless, rains to bring on miseries. This rain is different. "Like dying and going heaven first class," is what a fellow up in Marin County, Called this rain. There are 55 gallons drums sitting in suburban backyards, collecting the rain and storing it like fine Madeira. A nursery owner in San Rafael has pushed a firm, deep V onto the plastic on his greenhouse roof, so the rain will pour into a tank, which pumps into another tank. "I got out and worked in the rain," he said. "Soaked to the skin. But I am happy as a clam."

"Sublime happiness," exulted a man whose job happens to be wholesaling raincoats. "It's the No. topic of conversation. People go around almost congratulating each other."

In November the ground was so dry that the first rain vanished, soaked away. "If you take a sponge out in the desert ad throw water in it," a man at the drought information center said - that was how quickly the ground sucked the rain. Now the runoff has begun, because the earth is damp and satisfied, at least for awhile. There is no predicting the rest of the year's rainfall. "We can only hope," a man said.

An old Italian gardener, his home's downspouts trained on the withering azaleas, left his house during the first rain and stood outside, bareheaded, chilly and grateful. The drought killed his roses last year, along with the grass they boardered.

"God has blessed us with the water," the main said - awestruck and delighted, like most of California, at the tentative return of the rain.