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That’s when I stop—
somewhere a tractor sputters.
Turn the key—thump and the engine
particular morning after
a fishing or hunting party
as early as 1920 or the war years:
which generation, father or grandfather,
left his wet boots to dry beside
the fireplace in black and white?
There’s no date on sunlight
like stage lighting
that bleaches chunky beach stones,
over-exposure melts the mortar,
tightens its grasp on a tall walking stick
leaning like a gun.
The sun wants to go hunting?
Or to take that stick
in its big white hands and stir
the coals and sparks to flame?
Still life, mantel: dark bottles of ale
I can’t read or date, shadowy margins;
two with candles frame a set
of antlers, five points that won’t stop—
flash of white tail—or run.
We lost the huntsmen—
no captions or names, no fish
in the shallow pan—we must make our clues
from those drying boots, one lace
reaching to an old hooked rug,
from the deep pot pulled away by cast iron
arm, the charred, notched,
and sunlit edge of the surviving log,
post-mortem—soft grey dune,
erosion of ash
which will claim dry wood,
the camera-shy table and chair,
the story I’ve been looking for:
cabin as pushed, hunted
and burnt unseen
that now I mourn.
There’s no logbook for the day
he left the pie social, White Water’s Hall
when the sudden aphasia
of the mind, soundless
clamour, chaos, acute
chest pain as if the Ice King
struck him with a dagger
His widow’s silence deeper than black
and white photographs,
the sound of her quiet strokes
of paint, the diary where she hid
her grief, pentimento,
repentant, a painted landscape
that she paints over
until she went down
to the beach
The darkest part of the photograph
—swart, swagger, obscuring char
of tide, Fundy’s ink has drawn
its shadows on the stones: anchor
and bed for the logs
arranged on that thin peninsula:
hwearf. Can you hear the old-world
heave, the ox pull of trees felled
and milled, the clang of mallet
against spike and steel? Echo
of promontory—you start to say
promise and those sounds leak,
slope into water, those three tiers:
the first closest to the cliff and falls
—thread of white water, end
of the Borden Brook.
Nine stacked logs hold
the grassy point that plunged—
thunder of hooves, shotgun
of earth slap.
A few yards out,
five logs high, beginning of
diminuendo, waste-me-away, water
the surviving posts
in the last
brief mound of rock.
On the verandah steps she sits
facing west, looks away
from the photographer
as if grief is a seed that grows
a tall weed if she meets his gaze.
Here where delphinium
petals are crumpled notes, a letter
she wants to write: “mother . . .
passed away . . .” but the words
won’t do. They float and drift.
Strolling on the beach, does she
begrudge water’s rumoured pull?
Can she swim without questions?
She paints flowers,
paints light on black basket and trays.
Isn’t summer’s sadness the worst?
Have her eyes always been downcast?
The silence around her mother’s death—
it swells and ebbs, Fundy’s abundance
and low points.
Think evening, going all the way
out to the mud flats, coming home
with nothing, not even
one pocket of dulse.
Circa 1890, the Bordens milled,
sluiced logs down the brook.
My father’s drawn it like railroad tracks
with arrows—go this way, spring
runoff: roar, scrape, and grind,
the forest’s teeth bite into that deluge
of dark juice, sludge, and mire before
the lumber floats, purrs
and gurgles, goes mute
and is shipped out.
He’s mapped the family too:
Sir Frederick and Lady B. outlived
their son killed in the Boer War
and daughter lost at sea.
After the fin de siècle, world weariness
consumed like caviar? Horses and tight chains
dragged logs to the edge, fifty foot drop—roil
and crack. The boom below: premonition
and echo of Europe’s Great War.
Timber, dominoes go down:
Christmas 1939, he’s ten
at the end of the road. Wet snow
melts where he walks.
Here we might mark an X—
a seed falls, a path opens—that day
he studied the white breath
and muscled strain: eight teams
of horse and oxen hauling a black
metal animal—a boiler—
up the mountain road.
They’ll build a fire under its belly
so it will steam, work
the steady chug of its arm at the mill.
They’ll move it five times
before the big forests disappear.
Here I might cut another X in hardwood
if I could find some. Instead I’ll circle
—think of trees he will later cultivate
and tree rings, no beginning or end—
the day he decided his career.
A hay field, cut short, the slope
like a dog leaning into a scritch.
Someone’s tractor tires
have flattened a path;
Bill has driven into the next scene, offstage.
It’s July or August, unusual
that wind has gone
what is cut away, diminished return.
The driver of the truck in shadow,
someone else with pitchfork
tosses loose hay
into exuberant excess.
a wingèd beastie in the pile
ready to pounce.
Sunday, they pose beside the lilac—
farmers in jackets or their sons, arms
around each other, though the one in uniform—
if he signed up, did he
Sickle, blade, scythe,
and haywire—who sleeps
under the haystack?
The boy here is beside
tall grass, lupins, goldenrod,
near a barn’s mortar and stone
It will be gone
long before the boy’s a man.
He has a sulk upon him
and he won’t say why.
The names under the photograph:
Gil Winters, Jack Bell, and “Red”—
is he the one in the tweed cap
who climbs, his dip net ready,
over the rocks above the river,
rocks like the prow of a boat?
I could make up stories about these men
or ask who they really were.
If the answer is my grandfather’s
fishing friends, would I know anything?
Who can I ask? Everyone
in Shelburne County?
But would those on the other end
of the phone know the weather
that spring day at Jordan River
and how the wind sometimes
swooped low like a scavenging crow?
Who was the guide? Old photos
are hurricane lamps that cloud over
or stones blackened by the open fire.
Does Jordan River have any answers?
If Red scaled those rocks,
he stood there above the others
as if he had measured and tamed the wilderness.
Could be that all his life he never travelled
further south than Cape Sable,
never saw the city.
Maybe his father taught him
to cup his hands around his mouth,
shimmy his wrist—the resulting
sound a duck calling
food’s here, food
Who is the guide?
White water swirls, steams
forward around the bend in the river.
It’s a wing,
They caught eleven trout,
laid them out, jewels on the grass
with rod and woven creel.
I’m going to ask
no one, let the stories fly.
In the photograph they’re awash
in butterscotch: mother and child,
the cabin in the café au lait
trees. They’re sun-touched,
bronzed by balmy August.
It bathes the child, the dazzling
child perched on the verandah railing
in bloomers and sun bonnet,
her mother beside her
with an arm out—
to steady her,
The child’s aglow, relishing
her new height, almost grazing
the rafters, the broad V
of their open arms. They point to her,
catch a blazing sunburst—
this is her halo, my aunt
Five years later
the house lights go down,
a theatre darkens, and she,
among so many others, gazes up
at the newsreel, 1945—
no one can catch her.
The pictures swallowing
words and light.
She dons the dark habit—
float and whisper
of its folds—
enters the convent:
The Nature of the Beast
If the bombardment [of London by V-bombs] really becomes a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fall on many centres . . . I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.
—Winston Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, July 1944
The rain of large sparks, blowing down the street, were each as large as a five-mark piece. I struggled to run against the wind but could only reach a house on the corner of the Sorbenstrasse. . . . [We] couldn’t go on across the Eiffestrasse because the asphalt road had melted. There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed onto the roadway without thinking. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.
—Kate Hoffmeister, then nineteen, on the firestorm in Hamburg in 19431
The conclusion was getting hard to avoid even before the advent of nuclear weapons: the game of war is up, and we are going to have to change the rules if we are to survive. The brief, one-sided campaigns of well-armed Western countries against dysfunctional Third World autocracies kill in the tens of thousands, and the genocidal ethnic conflicts of fragile post-colonial states are local tragedies, but during the last two years of World War II, over one million people were being killed each month. If the great powers were to go to war with one another just once more, using all the weapons they now have, a million people could die each minute. They have no current intention of doing that, but so long as the old structures survive, Big War is not dead. It is just on holiday.
It is technology that has invalidated all our assumptions about the way we run our world, but the easiest and worst mistake we could make would be to blame our current dilemma on the mere technology of war. Napalm, nerve gas, and nuclear weapons were not dropped into our laps by some malevolent god; we put a great deal of effort into inventing and producing them because we intended to fight wars with them.
A lot of people know that seventy thousand died at Hiroshima, but few people know that two hundred and twenty-five thousand died in Tokyo, as a result of only two raids with conventional bombs. I was a bomber pilot a long time ago. I bombed Hamburg. Seventy thousand people died there when the air caught fire. Eighty thousand or so died at Dresden. And if you want to talk about numbers, one hundred and twenty-three thousand died at Iwo Jima . . . and so the problem is war, not nuclear war.
—Man in the street in Washington, D.C.
The essential soldier remains the same. Whether he was handling a sling-shot weapon on Hadrian’s Wall or whether he’s in a main battle tank today, he is essentially the same.
—Gen. Sir John Hackett
The soldier was one of the first inventions of civilization, and he has changed remarkably little over the five thousand years or so that real armies have existed. The teenage Iranian volunteers stumbling across minefields east of Basra in 1984 or the doomed British battalions going over the top in the July Drive on the Somme in 1916 were taking part in the same act of sacrifice and slaughter that destroyed the young men of Rome at Cannae in 216 bc. The emotions, the odds, and the outcome were fundamentally the same. Battle, the central act of civilized warfare, is a unique event in which ordinary men willingly kill and die as though those extraordinary actions were normal and acceptable. Changes in weapons and tactics have not altered those essential elements of its character.
However, the consequences of war can and do change. Force is the ultimate argument, and once it has been invoked, the only effective reply is superior force. The internal logic of war has frequently caused it to grow far bigger in scale than the importance of the issue originally at dispute would justify. In our time, the likely consequences of major war have grown drastically and irreversibly, so that they potentially include the destruction of the entire human habitat. Yet modern soldiers do not behave any more ruthlessly than their ancestors.
The residents of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945 suffered no worse fate than the citizens of Babylon in 680 bc, when the city fell to Sennacherib of Assyria, who boasted: “I levelled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top, I destroyed them, and I consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it into the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea.”2 It was a more labour-intensive method of destruction than nuclear weapons, but the effect (at least for an individual city) was about the same.
Most of the major cities of antiquity sooner or later met a fate similar to Babylon’s—some of them many times—when the fortunes of war eventually left them exposed to their enemies. The difference between ancient military commanders and those who control the ultimate weapons of today (apart from a strikingly different approach to public relations) is more in the technologies and resources at their disposal than in their basic approach to the job. Soldiers often prefer to cloak the harsh realities of their trade in idealism or sentimentality, as much to protect themselves from the truth as to hide it from the rest of us, but at the professional level they have never lost sight of the fact that the key to military success is cost-effective killing. The relentless search for efficiency in killing that ultimately led to the development of nuclear weapons was just as methodical when the only means of introducing lethal bits of metal into an enemy’s body was by muscle power. Consider the following instructions on the use of a sword in a Roman army training manual:
A slash cut rarely kills, however powerfully delivered, because the vitals are protected by the enemy’s weapons, and also by his bones. A thrust going in two inches, however, can be mortal. You must penetrate the vitals to kill a man. Moreover, when a man is slashing, the right arm and side are left exposed. When thrusting, however, the body is covered, and the enemy is wounded before he realises what has happened. So this method of fighting is especially favoured by the Romans.
The past is like a gun in the hands of our enemies. What we’ve said, what we’ve done, whether deliberate or not, the mistakes we’ve made when we were kids — sooner or later someone will find out about them and point them at your head. I made a promise to myself I’d never write again; I’ve paid too high a price already. And if I find myself wandering through this story now, my own story, it’s to establish the truth and hope that with it, I might regain those I loved and lost — through my own fault. On that morning in October 1995, I woke at dawn, still on edge from the previous night’s meeting. A grey light filtered through the window. It was still too early to take in the hills on the other side of the canyon, along with their great white lettering, still hidden by the thick smog that rose from the city. The sight of that sign was the consecration of my success, a feeling of revenge experienced every time I contemplated the sight from my office window, in my house all the way up Appian Way. In the car on the way home, I had unleashed my anger on Ann, who’d been troubled by the intensity of my words. I saw the way she stiffened in her seat, and I regretted it instantly, “If that’s success, I want no part of it! What are they trying to do? Silence us? Take away our freedom to write? It’s the money, goddamn it, the money that’s making us cowards!” She touched my arm, and with that soft but unyielding voice she used in such moments, when she wished to calm me down, said, “It’s okay, Romain, forget what just happened. It won’t happen again, you’ll see.” And I thought, How can you be so sure? It was Chastity’s abortions that had provoked the most violent responses. Letters, calls, sometimes threats, not to mention the small groups of demonstrators that had begun parading silently in front of the La Brea studio we called The Bunker, their anger a burning ember, the colour of painted blood splashed on their signs. Gloomy looking pro-life demonstrators would arrive early in the morning, icebox and folding chair under their arms, as if they were going to a baseball game, and leave late in the evening with, or so I imagined, the feeling of having accomplished something. They ignored us, and we ignored them. We did our job, they did theirs. Each of us defending our own understanding of freedom of speech in this country, though always keeping a distance from the other, in a show of feigned but civilized respect. To me it wasn’t a problem; to me that’s what America was all about. Chastity was a character in my television series In Gad We Trust. I had finally succeeded in selling my first script after years of disillusionment and struggle, at a point when I’d pretty much stopped believing it would ever happen. “When perseverance pays,” the newspapers had said. Success at the ripe age of fifty, which wasn’t a common story in Los Angeles, made me into a sort of celebrity that was apparently mocked, or at least that was what some large, drunken fellow from ABC had told me at a party, his warm hand on my shoulder, a dumb smile on his lips, “Have you heard what they’re saying about you? That they ended up saying yes to you for humanitarian reasons.” I had no qualms about it. I’d even learned to laugh at my own expense, speaking with derision of a miracle worked by Gad himself, adding sometimes, “Like a pregnant woman who thought she was sterile her whole life.” Don’t get me wrong though — the story I’m telling you here isn’t a comedy. This scriptwriter hasn’t laughed in a long time. It was a stimulating and exciting time, despite the whining from various quarters. Complaints told us we were on the right track: boldness doesn’t always please. At least that’s what we told ourselves, until the attacks became more personal and the head office of our network, It’s All Comedy!, became preoccupied with remarks made by an influential columnist with the Los Angeles Daily News. We were in the middle of filming the second season, surfing on the instant success of the first, which had put wind in our sails and given us enough arrogance to ignore the negative comments. But this, this was different. The criticism had turned into a vicious mess. “These Hollywood types never go after Jews. But Christians — why not?... Would these eager defenders of freedom of expression have been so eager to defend Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic pamphlets in Nazi Germany? Of course not.” And of course, within “of course not” sits the malicious intent of the author. So much so that after the text was published, the author was interviewed on a popular talk-radio show, and the putrid wind — Jews, money, Hollywood — blew once again through the town’s populist media. And Josh Ovitz, president of It’s All Comedy!, felt himself the target of these cruel attacks. I told Josh, “Don’t let it distract us. We know what it’s all about, this disgusting propaganda. Another reason not to give a single inch.” The whole affair had shaken the crew and provided the impetus for a series of long discussions among the staff, How far is too far? It’s around that time that a certain scene, which hadn’t been thought of as problematic after a first read, had suddenly become so. And Josh had asked all of us over for a meeting. On a Sunday afternoon. In production meetings, I had the reputation of being pugnacious when defending my ideas. We’d wanted dark comedy, we had dark comedy. A handful of complaints from saggy sanctimonious nothings in Orange County wouldn’t paralyze us. “Okay, Roman …” Dick, a producer friend, was speaking. “But the stuff on God.…” Flabbergasted, I stared at Dick. I suddenly wondered if the complaints, which until that point we’d treated with either indifference or amusement (hadn’t we popped a bottle of champagne in honour of the first one?) — and now these fallacious newspaper articles — would complicate our task. Censor myself? No way! Sure, what we had undertaken was edgy, but it wasn’t revolutionary in any sense — the American public was ready for it. The Simpsons on Fox had opened the way. Now, new cable outfits had taken the baton and run with it, taking greater and greater risks. To me there was something a hundred times worse than sedition: vulgarity. And here was Josh Ovitz, an intelligent young man, a bit over thirty and intrepid, a pure product of East Coast education, out of arguments. Without much resistance, he was signing on with Dick and all the others around the table, including Matt, a man whose work I admired, and Ann, who’d participated in the writing of the series. Ann? You agree with them? Before my astonished air, she lowered her eyes, while Josh’s assistant distributed photocopies of the scene in question, which I was asked to read out loud. I staggered through it without the enthusiasm with which I’d written the thing:
Season 2 / In Gad We Trust / episode 4 / scene 14: interior, Paradise Church, day (After a particularly lucrative religious service — the faithful had once again been generous — Gad Paradise and his son are chatting in the room behind the altar. Gad takes off his preacher’s garb.) GAD PARADISE You know, God, he’s like a Mafia Don. God-Bonanno. God-Al Capone. God-Lansky. God-Father. D’ya get it? God-Father! If you go behind his back, God can have you dead any time, any place. Divine prerogative, right? You following me? (Gad picks up the collection bags filled to the brim, and begins opening them) But if you work hard for him, well, well (he snaps his fingers), he’ll be generous right back! (Gad empties the bags on the ground.) Everything that falls to the ground is ours. If God wanted any of it, he should have reached out from Heaven and held out his hand! God, what a schmuck!
Around the table, total silence. Dick shook his head. “You can’t call God a schmuck, Roman. You know me, I generally don’t give a shit. But that, even I can’t abide.” “We’re not the ones saying it, a character is.” “It won’t fly. No one is okay with it. It’s just … anti-American.” “Anti-American! Having a laugh at God is anti-American?” No one reacted. I was stupefied. Matt, a tall man with a deep voice, added, “It’s a small phrase. It doesn’t have an impact on the story.” Everyone nodded and Dick added, “Right, a small, blaspheming phrase.” I went on, indignant, “You, Dick? Nagging me about blasphemy? You can’t say two words without cussing!” Dick pressed his lips together, no doubt keeping some choice words to himself at that very moment. Ann was facing me, her back straight, looking at me as if to say, They’re right. The series is explosive enough. They’ll never be able to accuse us of deference. Just let it go.… “Blasphemy hasn’t been a crime in this country since 1971! We’ve got the Constitution on our side, for crying out loud!” Josh grabbed a pen and drew a line over the phrase in his copy. He stood up, avoided my eyes, and spoke to the room as if I’d already left, “Good, we’re all agreed, then. We’re filming the scene tomorrow without the phrase, okay?” All agreed. “Wait!” I protested. Josh looked sorry now, sincerely sorry. Who was behind this censorial operation? The board? The shareholders? And no one to inform me about it before now? Finally, I found my words, rage filling me, “Today, it’s just one phrase. And tomorrow, what will it be? What are we going to be shooting for our fifth season? The Waltons?” Josh rubbed his hand in his hair. “We’re wasting our time, Roman. How many of us around the table? Eight? So it’s seven against one.” “I’m the writer!” I glanced over at Ann, and she put on a brave smile. My heart tightened. Josh continued, “Please, Roman, in the future, let’s try to avoid easy formulas and simple phrasing, okay? I’m sure you can find something better to write. In fact, I can’t see how it affects the scene. Really.” Avoid easy formulas? If I was being honest, I’d have admitted that Josh was right on this one. The phrase certainly wasn’t the best one I’d written in my career. But considering the circumstances ... not saying anything? Because that was the whole point of this improvised — though not so much when I came to think about it — intervention: to shut me up. Ann watched me, imploring me with her eyes to not say anything. She knew how angry I could be, knew that the simple idea of being muzzled sent me back to my childhood, which I didn’t like to talk about and which she didn’t entirely understand. A childhood made of bitter and unpleasant memories, like a dish you hated as a kid and promised yourself never to eat again when you grew up. I’d spent my entire life fighting for a way to express myself, total freedom, without concessions or constraints, and I wouldn’t, at my age, fifty years old for crying out loud, let myself be told, you can’t say that! Especially just because a gang of fanatics might feel offended. “Shit!”
The wind is fierce and pushes the ladder over a couple of times before Henry figures out the clawed feet need to be shimmied to sit straight. He uses a couple of pieces of kindling from beside the house, and when he finally has the ladder secure and is six steps up, balanced at the edge of the tin roof, he takes a swing and drops the hammer. Six steps down and six steps back up, he takes a dozen or so more swings until two nails are secure in the corner of the roof. He’s trying to crane his neck to survey the handiwork when the wind repositions the ladder and tosses him onto his right leg, then while his ankle twists, onto his ass and into the mud. The limp back to Wendy’s door is not too painful, but he knows the ankle is going to get worse.
The roof’s nailed down, he says, but I fell off a forty-foot ladder. Got any ice?
Wendy laughs. This is good. She seems to understand his humour. And in that instant it starts to pour rain harder than Henry has ever seen before.
It had not been Henry’s plan to use his mishap as an excuse to stay the night but it’s just as well. By dark the weather has worked into a gale force storm, then next morning the man from Swift Farms comes earlier than expected. Seemingly the man has learned everything he knows about demeanor from boss man’s son, Bob. He’s pissed off the order isn’t ready, and he has no trouble expressing his dissatisfaction. Henry and Wendy scramble to collect the eggs while the man sits in his truck.
While they’re in the barn scooping eggs, Henry asks, Why do you let Swift Farms push you around?
I need the money, plain and simple, she answers.
Henry runs his hand along the back of the roosting bar. When he’s almost finished the last row, his hand hits a warm body. Once his eyes adjust to the gloom of the laying trough, he can see it’s a hen that looks like Pepper.
What are you doing down there, Pepper? he says.
Is there a hen brooding? Wendy asks.
Looks like there might be.
Gotta snap her out of it or she won’t lay for weeks. Need to get my egg count up to keep Swift happy.
After Wendy settles up the egg delivery and grumpy Swift has driven off, Wendy calls to Henry.
Bring that hen here, she says.
Henry holds Pepper out and asks, Where’s she going?
Into the panic room.
Wendy pushes open the door to a room off the side of the barn. The room has been mudded adobe style, but the walls, ceiling, and floor are painted a cerebral blue. Warm air wafts out. Inside there’s an oak table with a wooden box on it. Wendy puts Pepper into the box while Henry sits on a mud slab the size of a bed that juts out from the wall.
A man could sleep in here, he says. It’s beautiful.
Dennis did sleep in here sometimes, she murmurs.
Then wanting to change the subject, Henry asks, Why is Pepper in a box?
New accommodation, away from the eggs and her brooding. She’ll stay here ‘til she’s over her nonsense.
That night Henry sleeps in the mudroom with Pepper. It smells of chicken, but not too bad or maybe he’s just gotten used to it, and he tries not to think why Dennis might have slept there. But his ankle still hurts, and anything would be better than that first night sleeping on the living room floor, with Joey making such a big deal of stepping over him whenever he needed to go to the bathroom—uttering the same Jessuschris sound each time no matter where on the floor Henry had moved to—and come to think of it, going to the bathroom way more times than any normal teenager needs to in one night.
The second night in the mudroom, Henry takes Pepper out of the box and sits with her on his lap. A calm comes over him. After a time he realizes something else is happening, having a chicken in his lap keeps his apparatus warm. He might even start to think about taking it out, and touching it, without freaking that it will go numb or dissolve, though bits of doubt make him wonder whether it’s creepy to be thinking this with a chicken so close—it’s not like he wants to do anything with the chicken—it’s just that it’s warm and it’s better than thinking about, say, his shriveled five-year-old self in the bathtub, his mother kissing his soapy face. After a time he exhausts himself thinking and he just settles into the warmth of it. He is half-asleep when he feels himself lapse into a state one level below the busybody monitoring himself for weirdness, and into a zone of comfort without admonishments about inadequacies. Henry sleeps well in the panic room.
By the third night he’s made the room his own sort of nest bringing in a few different chickens for a visit, comforted by their warmth and chatter, their feathers beginning to form constellations on the heavenly blue walls. But after the fourth night, the Friday night, he thinks he needs to get back to his own place. Who knows what new mess might greet him there, and besides he can’t ask Wendy to wash his only set of clothes again.
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