# 5 / The White Beech Tree

It must have been mid-October when the unfortunate man set out for a stretch of the legs. Frank enjoyed his afternoon strolls. He’d set out precisely after dinner which finished at 6:15 pm. He wore his white woollen socks to the rims of his knees, his khaki shorts with the two hidden pockets, his orange blocked button-up tucked in and secured by his leather belt where he’d punctured an extra hole. Not because he’d lost weight but because the belt was on discount.

‘A perfectly good belt,’ he thought, ‘going to waste.’ 

He was not a man to worry himself about fashion. He was a man of function; deliberate. A man of miraculous punctuality and mirthless structure. Although one could say his yellow-shaded glasses were funny. 

A lukewarm breeze slid over Frank’s cheeks as he pushed open the wooden fence.  Damp mist hung low over the meadow, almost purplish, the droplets cloaking the field in a silvery hue. Briskly he ascended the hill towards the old beech tree which roots dug firmly into the hillside. He didn’t notice the two shades on top of the hillside adjacent of the tree. A pair of men with arched backs and distorted faces.

Those men would come often on late afternoons, sometimes even at nights, when everyone has fallen in a nocturnal slumber. Their business is obscure; their intentions nameless. No good things happen when they are around. The pair is known by Blame and Pride if they’re known at all. They most certainly do not come from the village below. 

Their appearance is quite frightful, unlike anything seen before. Blame is a cup and a half taller than Pride, but Pride could fit into two Blame’s and is not embarrassed to say so. Pride’s somewhat like a creased ball of newspaper that tumbles down busy streets, kicked by leathery feet and taking into the air; a ball of paper with no location to go or a place to stay. His face is that of a fat sluggish-frog submerged in murky waters, eyes bulbous like preying night-cats. Blame on the other hand has the down-determined expression of a penniless salesman; he looks like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep drunk on a dripping-wet barstool in a Scottish pub; delirious, but stubbornly persistent, and after waking up, you’d carry a nauseous feeling in your stomach as if something you ate was a few days off. 

There exist no greedier, ruder or nastier pair.

They chuckled wistfully as they regarded the old man taking off his glasses, wiping them with a cloth, peering through the frame, squinting his eyes and wiping them again. At one point he stopped to remove a smudge with the side of his thumb. Mid-October afternoons are always foggy and bad here for the less-fortunate far-sighted folk. 

‘My dear friend, do your eyes spy the same calamity approaching?’ Blame spoke slow with a sound low, creaking like the crushing of desiccated bark. 

Pride, who had been digging the frozen ground fervently, jolted upward and pierced the twilight sky with eyes bright ablaze such as a cold fire. It didn’t take him long to spot Frank. 

‘He’s come too early,’ Pride’s high voice slithered through yellowed teeth.  

Blame nodded. 

Pride started to dig more urgently now, his shocking, slender body appearing to fight off the shapeless identity of time. The shovel slashed through the earth, sometimes with ease but more often it bounced back where it had hit a rock or a root. ‘He’s come too soon. I can’t finish the grave,’ he panted. Blame nodded and made a musing noise that could be interpreted as ‘let’s come back later’. Or perhaps it meant ‘there is still time; he’s stopped again to catch his breath.’ There was no way of knowing.

But it didn’t matter. Pride had had enough.

Both men regarded the shallow hole with jagged rims and strands of unearthed grass scattered through it like malachite shards. It was clearly not big enough for a human body. 

‘We could slice him in two,’ Pride said, ‘he’s very skinny nowadays. We’ll use the shovel; its edges are still sharp.’

‘You seem to think that the body is made of twigs and sand,’ Blame said.

Pride gave an insulting frown. ‘I’m no fool! I know that it has strong bones, thick muscles and lean flesh. In fact, I’m quite sure I know a lot more about many things than you do.’

‘You didn’t dig fast enough; that’s the problem.’

He was probably on time after all. 

The pair stole into the shadows, hiding behind the lowest branch. The hole concealed by the mists’ obscurity.

As Frank reached the top of the hill, he felt the burning of his lungs. He noticed that there were still leaves on the white beech tree, though not as abundant as you might see in summer. Some were fiercely bright as acidic wine and, on the ground, the leaves were evenly speckled like fragrant, sweltering oranges. If you happened to step on one of the old ones, they’d sigh and disintegrate under your sole with gratification. The tree always gave Frank the impression of a large eagle that spread-out its wings. It gave him reassurance. 

Hardly anyone came here except some children, to play. They’d hang upside down from the thick branches and laugh until they looked sick, or they’d bounce their ball against the fat trunk until it rolled down the hill and they had to climb up again. But today they weren’t here, and Frank was glad for it. 

He turned around. From here he could see the bird fountain made from marble that once was white but was now coated with a damp, furry moss that, according to some villagers, added to its magical appearance. And to the right, the Old Roman church where the back of the roof had collapsed and caused dreadful leakages when it rained, and, specifically frightened the tending pastor. 

Frank adjusted his shirt and gave his neck a quick rub, then rolled his shoulders up and down, let out a big puff of air so that his chest deflated. This was good, the walk. It took his mind off the thing he tried to forget so hard. If only his heart would have a little more strength. 

White Beech Tree

‘You have arrived at the perfect time.’

 Frank leaped around, scouring the dimmed surroundings. ‘Who’s here?’

There was some movement a few meters away near the line of the woodland. The second time the voice spoke, he couldn’t suppress a small shriek. It originated from the tree. 

‘You’ve arrived at the right moment!’ it said.

‘Alright! Heard you the first time.’ He searched for words.  ‘What do you mean, the right moment? Who are you? Where –’ 

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ it said.

Thickness swelled up inside Frank’s throat. He moved closer, his head cocked, his left ear pitched to the tree, but not too close – he didn’t dare to lose the moonlight. 

‘What is it you want?’

Somewhere a blackbird shot out of the shrubs, screeching into the hastening blackness of the night.

‘Now, don’t be so brisk,’ the voice growled, ‘why assume there’s something wanted?’ 

He sniffed the cool air and tried to pull himself together. There could be no such thing as a talking tree, he knew, because he’d read it in books but never heard of it on the news; and the news always said the truth, awful truths, but things that were there, happening, in the world he was part of. Or used to be. He wasn’t actually sure whether he wanted to be part of it any longer.

Frank then was convinced that something else was at play. Something unnatural that he hadn’t yet encountered. The waxing moon surrounded the ivy on the tree with a halo, translucent as barrel-aged whiskey. 

‘There’s always something needed in life,’ Frank said as he fumbled the rim of his khaki shorts.

It was quiet for a moment.

The higher voice said: ‘Not if you’re good enough. Then, you have everything.’

The lower voice said: ‘There’s always someone who’s better. Who’s more successful than you.’

The soil was frost-bound. Frank could tell from the shuddering heather. He suddenly felt very tired. Tired of this game that was obviously a ruse and how dare the tree talk about being good enough and whether or not he’d had success in his life.

the white beech tree

Then the voice continued. ‘But now that you mention it, we do need something.’

‘Look, I’m not sure what you’re playing at, “tree”,’ he did quotation marks in the air and then felt very foolish since there was no way the tree had eyes, ‘but I’ve had enough. I’m going to start walking back now.’ And he turned around with determination, his eyes fixed upon the small village with the flickering light-bugs and the aged copper-coloured roof-tiles. In the embrace of the falling night, the town invoked a sense of bewitchment and trance. He wished he was back in his chair near the window. He wished he could’ve had more time.

After he’d taken a few steps he half expected to be called back by the tree; most certainly the voice would reappear after he was almost out of ear reach, but the tree remained silent. It stayed quiet for such a while he began to think that he’d imagined it all. Maybe he’d eaten something funny. An odd mushroom. 

But then the tree spoke again. 

‘You know you can’t go back.’

Frank knew. ‘Why?’, he heard himself ask. The white beech tree that suddenly felt like his only best friend. There was an uncanny familiarity to the voices as if he’d heard them before in a dream, delirious and hazy. Were they even real?

‘You know why. You’ve tried long enough,’ the voices both said. ‘You’ve thought about it long enough. Every time you opened your eyes in the morning when you made weak green tea for yourself. You asked yourself the question; every time you watched the creeping shadows engulfing yet another day, another day where it didn’t get better. Where nothing happened or changed. You’re tired, had enough. And it’s alright. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’ 

The silent breath of the wind caressed the clothes around his body and urged him back toward the tree. Was this really why he was here?

For the first time in his life, he felt that he could cry. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long while. He’d felt the emptiness alright, not just in his mind, but the mundane and bland coldness that flowed through his limbs and chest like a late November fall-day where the sky seemed ashen white but it was clouds that covered the sky and it was not truly the sky but the clouds, all over. 

Nothing came and nothing left. 

He’d gone through his life with no particular emotion. He performed every movement as if it were directed by a shadowed entity, face dark, dark eyebrows. He had regarded his life patiently as if it were a long moment to endure and even though he might’ve been youthful when he was young, he’d always thought of himself as old. There had been moments where he found he couldn’t breathe as deep as he liked, only shallow breaths and it had made his head fuzzy. Maybe it was the right time after all.

Frank stepped closer. He noticed the fresh soil dug up in a big pile next to a shallow hole.

The voices seemed to sense the question in Frank’s head. ‘It’s your grave. We’ve started it but you finished it.’

‘You’re not real,’ Frank said.

‘We’re glad to see that nothing escapes on old crook like you.’

Frank sighed and picked up the shovel and started digging. ‘I’ve let a fulfilling life, you know.’ The blade went into the earth and uncovered worms wriggling naked and pink in the black soil. ‘it was just the last years that were tough. After she passed, the only woman I’ve ever loved, it wasn’t the same anymore.’

The white beech tree moaned as the icy wind pushed and pulled its branches.

‘You couldn’t have helped her even if you’d been there,’ the highest voice said. 

The other one seemed to let out a howl so fierce that it rumbled the dug-up dirt and set the leaves to shiver. ‘It is because you weren’t there that she died.’

Frank’s insides turned to water. His legs felt too heavy and his body cumbersome. He wanted to lay down, just for a moment. 

‘I shouldn’t have left her.’ Frank said meekly.

‘It was your fault.’

The earth felt frosty and the cold seeped through his clothes and his skin and into his bones. He wondered if he’d see her again soon. At that moment, mortality seemed only a thin mist. One that would fade with the rising of the warm morning sun.

‘What do you need,’ he asked as he laid down.

His spine relaxed and he thought of her.

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ Pride and Blame answered. 

Words: 2193

Inspired by ‘Stoner’ from John Williams

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# 4 / The Painter

If you would walk up on a sunny day to the pathway that leads towards the high stairs that villagers here still call the ‘Sky’s Stairs’, and if you then look to your right, you might see, if there are no grey clouds that day, the roof of my house and you might wonder who could live there in such a wealthy manner. You might notice the very straight roof tiles, the polished windows with the red curtains behind it, the smoke rising from the black chimney and the russet bricks surrounding the large, wooden front door. I am aware of its grandeur and it is true that once there lived a very rich man. But if I were to inform you that its occupants these days are merely the descendants of a simple goat farmer and that these descendants praise themselves lucky that they were able to purchase this house in a time of recession you might be surprised. If I were to tell you instead that the previous owner of this majestic house was none other than Theodore Van De Moor, you would understand its magnitude. 

It is possible that you are new to this town, that used to be a large city, and have never heard of him, although he’s well known by the villagers in town and by the people in the surrounding areas. I could tell you that he was a painter and a very great one too. In his time, he created many paintings which were desired and very often asked for by those who could afford them. Naturally, those paintings no longer adorn the walls in this house; they were auctioned off after the previous owner passed away. But I do remember that I’ve heard that those paintings were something out of this world, extra-terrestrial and that the people, those who have seen them and others who haven’t but had heard of their brilliance from others, whisper only praise about them. You might wonder what kind of painting could be of such splendour that it seems extra-terrestrial. I’ll explain. If you were to walk a bit further down the street and if the sun would shine on the left corner of the pointy roof, you might see a statue. It is not a large statue and it is not in the same size as the well-known painter when he was alive, but you might be able to distinguish some of its features. 

I have to confess that when I first laid eyes on the house, I didn’t notice the statue. It is hidden from the main entrance of the house, and I was taken aback by the magnificent copper-coloured bricks and chestnut front door, and I imagined then what the windows would look like if my family were to hang red curtains behind them. The property was for sale for only a trifling price, probably not even worth half its value that it would have been before the recession. You might think me foolish, and, with the knowledge I now have, I would too, but the only excuse I can find now is that I was ignorant. I had never heard of Van de Moor and in my innocence, I merely saw a beautifully preserved house in which my family could grow old. Besides, the bakery in this town is known to have the best croissants in the province and I have a terrible weakness for buttery pastries.  

If you were to have a better look and you might need to squint your eyes, you would see that the statue doesn’t depict a grand painter, but instead, a more distorted figure that I fancy resembles a gargoyle, with its sharp wings and dark, weathered stone and malicious claws, and the face that is deformed into an unnatural looking kind. I am aware that it is an unpleasant statue to behold and to be quite frank with you, it makes me uneasy that it is attached to my splendorous house. But I can’t take it down. That I know for certain because I once attempted to do so. I had bought all the equipment: ropes, a pickaxe, and a hammer paid for with the funds we saved so we could hire a professional to repair the leakage in the third bathroom. My dear wife could no longer stand the sight of it. I admit that at first, I didn’t see the harm of it since it was on the roof and not visible from the entrance of the house, so I didn’t set about the matter very quickly. But my wife grew more uneasy every time she heard it mentioned in the market where she buys fish and lavender soap, I so went out to buy the tools. 

I remember that it was a clear day, mercurial hot, I was sweltering on top of the roof, and I could think of many other things I would have preferred to do that moment. The ladder I had used to climb up was firmly planted against the wall with the ceramic pots as support. I imagined that I first would secure the ends of the ropes around the legs, body and the arms so I could give the statue a good pull after I had struck the base with my pickaxe, a tool that wasn’t of very high quality but seemed sharp enough to cleave the weathered stone. I gave it a few test swings. But as you would have it, after I had made sure I had a good grip on the roof ridge and that my left foot was secure in the gutter, and I then heaved my first strike, the tip of the pickaxe bounced back after it touched the stone as if it were made of rubber. Can you believe it? I made another attempt, this time confirming that I was making for the statue – maybe I had accidentally hit something else than the statue. But even when I had put all my weight and force into the swing, the pickaxe bounced back and the counterforce made me lose my balance. Only a bit further down the roof was I able to grab the roof vent and pull myself up. Was this wretched statue indestructible? After I crawled back and laid my hands on the statue so I could inspect it, I noticed the dark clouds on the horizon making fast towards the house. The sun had disappeared, and I was overcome by a feeling that someone was watching me. I hurried back, down the ladder and into the house. 

The Painter
The painter

After I had told the story to my wife she laughed. ‘There could be no such thing as an indestructible statue,’ she said. I knew that it sounded ridiculous, after all, it didn’t even look stable, but very frail. But I couldn’t deny what had happened there on the roof. ‘I know my dear, and it sounds unbelievable, but what if it’s made of some sort of strong material from before the recession? Maybe it was even made of a type of rubber.’ I immediately regretted the last suggestion, because I saw her face change and regard me oddly, maybe wondering why she married this fool. ‘No, you’re going back up there as soon as the clouds have disappeared. I will not stand those people on the market making fun of it – of us!’ I tried to think of other things we could try, maybe hiring someone to take it down or hoping that lightning would strike it someday, but I saw the tremor in my wife’s chin and I knew that it would be even more foolish if I’d go against her. ‘Yes, my dear, I’ll go back up as soon as I’m able.’

It took about a few hours for the clouds to dissolve and to greet back the insatiable heat that characterises countryside France in the peak of summer, and I smelled the drying ivy and lavender that grew outside our house, and frankly, populated the whole town, where the speckled leaves and purple merged into the crème coloured sand-brick houses. The notion of lightning striking the statue seemed to grow more believable with every step I took up the ladder. But the chances of the clouds returning were slim. 

Now, I’d like to have a little intermission before I tell you what is about to happen on top of the roof, as I climbed up for the second time. At that moment, I had no idea why the famous painter was so poorly represented in the statue. Of course, some suggestions had crossed my mind like, maybe he once painted a gargoyle and it had become something of a tribute to his admirers, or he identified himself with a metaphorical, distorted-looking creature. But I didn’t know the truth, while I later learned that so many in our village did. They knew that he was known as authentic, unbalanced, sometimes erratic even. That Van de Moor often didn’t leave his house for weeks. That he was referred to as the Cursed Painter. And even the villagers didn’t know exactly why he was cursed, because I suppose that even if someone is acting strange, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cursed. All of this, I learned a few weeks later after the incident, from an elderly man who could’ve well been of the painter’s age if he were still alive. What I’m about to tell you has never crossed my lips before and I intended to have it stay that way, but the urge to share my sorrows with someone, a stranger like you who I’m sure will not pass this tale on to others, is too great. I suppose it’s only human to feel the need to be understood or at least to be listened to. Why would you ask? Well, revealing the truth and consequently laying this burden on my family would be too harmful, for they are so content living in this house and I’m quite certain that I could never afford a better, larger house than the current one. And if that means that I have to live with this dark secret to keep my family save, so be it.

I learned the story from a stranger much as yourself. I happened to meet the elderly man while I was sitting in front of my house. There was a raw, waning sun that shone yellow upon the wicker bench and with my eyes closed, my thoughts had wandered off to a peaceful memory I like to think back to on these occasions. I had heard his footsteps approaching but didn’t think much of it. It could also have been my wife shuffling around in the garden, tending to the purple rain and the Fragonard roses. But when he spoke, the voice was unmistakably not my wife’s. ‘I see you’re enjoying the splendour of this mansion, as you well should.’ I opened my eyes, disheartened that someone had come to tear me from my daydreaming. The man stood with an arched back and a long neck, white whiskers and thin hair but surprisingly voluminous. Friendly eyes, green, I think, but they also could’ve been hazel. I couldn’t recall then whether I had seen the man before, although it was likely – the town wasn’t that large anymore, and he seemed to have read my mind. ‘I live in a town nearby,’ he explained pointing to the south with his thick thumb, ‘but I’ve come to look at the house that used to be owned by the magnificent Van de Moor. I’m a great admirer, you see. His paintings are extraordinary, the colours seem to jump off the canvas, the strikes of his brush hit every accent so beautifully as if he was simply tracing the actual scene.’ The old man’s face had become flushed with excitement. I didn’t know what to respond. I couldn’t bring up the courage to say that the owner of the great painter’s house had never seen anything of Van de Moor’s work. ‘That sounds nice,’ I mumbled. It appeared to be enough; the old man smiled proudly. ‘Amazing, his paintings are. I’m a collector too, although I flatter myself in saying so; his paintings are quite expensive nowadays. That wasn’t the case when he was alive, unfortunately.’ Creases emerged between his white eyebrows as if the thought of the painter not earning enough money during his active years was of a personal matter. I asked him why. ‘It had nothing to do with his art, I’m sure of that. But over the years he became quite mad. Although you often see some type of eccentricity in great artists, Van de Moor crossed the line between a little quirky to absolutely bananas. He thought that he was cursed by a witch, you see, and not just some witch!’ He leaned closer and I smelled his eggy breath. ‘The witch from the legends.’ I had heard of this legend before but not in detail, for it normally didn’t interest me. But the old man had such a knack for storytelling that I suddenly wanted to hear all about it. ‘What legend?’ 

The old man smirked. ‘The Witch of Dauphiné. It is said that when she was born the first plague in France began; crops turned black, inedible, and it didn’t take long for the country to go hungry. No one knew that people were starving because of the birth of a child who seemed normal. But normal she was certainly not. You see, she was given the Mark of the Devil, a long scratch on her left thigh that was always burning hot red as if the Devil’s flames itself furnaced the scar. No one knows why she was chosen to do the Devil’s work though she accepted her role completely. Antoine Lilly was her name. It is said that she feasted on human flesh, bend minds and bones to her will, change into the shape of a werewolf and that she particularly relished in strangling little children. The world is lucky that her malicious work didn’t last long; she was captured before her 25th birthday in Dauphiné and tortured until she confessed. Then she was burned alive on the stake. They say that it took four days for the flames to take her and that the witnesses can still hear her wicked laugh in their sleep. And it happened right here, on this spot, where this mansion is now built.’ I blinked. He made a point of adding: ‘of course that happened a long time ago and it probably doesn’t affect you in any way’. 

Here I have to apologise to you, for I am sure that these gruesome details were not enjoyable to hear. You have to forgive me; I’m only telling you what the old man told me. After he had finished telling his terrible tale I have to admit I sensed an electric shock going through my body, but I kept my face straight.  

‘How could the burning of a witch affect the life of a painter? There should be a lot of places around France where many innocent women and men have met their agonising ending; there is no evidence that this Antione was any different.’ I regretted asking after further about the legend. It showed to have been a plain ghost story, told by a demented man who I now hoped would leave very soon. But he didn’t. ‘Antoine Lilly wasn’t just an ordinary witch. She was a direct descendent of the Devil, marked in the womb. After she was burned, her skeletal remains disappeared, and they say that worshippers tried to revive her.’ He nodded his head towards the roof. ‘That statue wasn’t sculpted to resemble the likeness of a gargoyle. It became this way after Theodore Van de Moor converted into a zealous devotee himself. Over the years, the painter’s madness trickled into the statue and now it exposes the blackness of his true nature; deformed, contorted, a madness caused by the wicked whispers of the Devil’s descendent.’ I could hardly believe the nonsense the man was saying. ‘Well, I’m sure this is a great, scary story, but –.’ ‘Have you not truly looked at the statue? Seen its ugliness?’ he interrupted. ‘Did you not think it was odd that this majestic house was for sale for such a nominal fee?’ I tried to get inside, but the old man followed me to the door. His face seemed to be burning as if he had a high fever. I yanked at the handle of the door. ‘I only came to warn you, to tell you the truth!’ he exclaimed as I tried to get rid of his hands on my arm. It seemed now impossible to end this conversation politely, and only after I had closed the door and found myself safely on the other side did I shout some sort of goodbye. 

I wish that I had had this knowledge before I climbed up the roof, for it could’ve saved me from my current predicament. But my dear wife had told me to go back onto the roof and so that’s what I did. 

I peered over the ridge of the roof and climbed up, hesitantly, so I could sit next to the statue. In the magnetic afternoon light, the pastures were blank and receptive, and I visualised myself running through the rough, tall, emerald grassland breathless, like a young child. For some reason, I couldn’t muster the courage to look at the statue, and I recall now that something stopped me from touching it too. It was as if I didn’t want to acknowledge its existence. I played with the rope, pulling strands of twine, folding and unfolding it, and weighing it in my hands. I might have sat there for a full hour because I remember the gold-crusted sun sinking so that it almost touched the earth. Something had to be done though, so I turned around. The coarse stone was gritty, and I wiped some of the fragments off of the wings, and then I felt that the statue was strangely warm, toasty even, which alarmed me at first but then I remembered that it had been a hot day. I wasn’t sure what type of stone this was – not that I knew much about minerals and rocks, but when I came closer, it seemed as if it was radiating, indeed, with my face so close to the stone I swear I could see veins; not black ones that one might see in marble, but crimson veins; oozing, smouldering, flaring veins as if lava was pushed through the stone with amazing force. And the statue felt hot, radiantly hot, scalding hot, so hot that I pulled my hands away for fear of burning them and as I leaned back, the blood sank into my feet. Its head had turned around and was looking at me. Blazing red eyes, smoking, fuming, and the jaws exposed a horrid, beastly set of teeth; my whole body shuddered, and I froze, and then the bloodcurdling creature moved forward, biting rhythmically, and then I was sliding down the roof on my back, waving my arms frantically, trying to grab something that would stop me from falling, but I was too late and my body smacked on the sandstone pathway, near the Fragonard roses. 

There you have it. I went up the roof to take a statue down, but instead, I believe to have seen a Devilish creature coming towards me and then I fell off the roof. I’m sure this must be the most preposterous story you’ve ever heard, but it’s true. I count myself blessed that I didn’t perish; another wrong turn or any odd obstacle in the way could’ve caused my neck to break. Instead, I live, though both my legs are broken, the fractures so complicated that I now have metal pins to strengthen them. I won’t ever be able to walk fast or run again. But at least I can be with my family and see them grow. The only thing that still bothers me, and I’m sure it is only a minor issue, is the red scar on my upper leg that doesn’t seem to heal as fast as the other wounds.

The intro is inspired by the book ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pages: 6

Word count: 3,428

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