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The House Nun: A Tale


ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

It happened in a place where witches and spirits are very much believed in. It’s about as far away as you can get from quaint, correct New England and all of its coldnesses and confusions. In that other place, if you go there, at least remember this: food offered by a witch shouldn’t be eaten. You’d be better off avoiding a witch’s society altogether, that is assuming you can recognize one. But witches aren’t the only ones offering tainted treats. And if you are the proverbial “nice young man” you need to watch yourself even more so. For the fact is, if a “nice young girl” can successfully sneak a few drops of her menstrual blood into a plate of food, the one who eats it will become her devoted slave forever. And then where will you be? Is that the life you wanted to be stuck in? You’d be stuck and wouldn’t even know it. You would think it was your own choice.

Glenn had been traveling in that country, in the southern part, for several days when he decided to take a room in a town of mushroom pickers. At home he’d left behind his former girlfriends and their masks and games; and even his well-known family name, which sounded too sharp here, anyway, like the clatter of a stick across a picket fence. (And it was odd—wasn’t it—that the name was still considered stellar, despite his parents’ recent divorce, which had been ugly and often quite violent; but apparently no one can hear heads slamming into walls that are surrounded by enough acres.)

The year was 1971, so he looked like pictures of Christ, with a beard and long hair, and sandals on his feet—and a backpack and bedroll strapped to his shoulders. In the backpack were three books by Hermann Hesse. He also carried a spiral notebook—a journal; he wrote only to himself.

There was no actual hotel in the mushroom pickers’ town, but in the cafe in the piazza Glenn learned of an empty storage area above a glass and mirror shop, and was told that the proprietor would probably rent it to him—at least there wasn’t any harm in asking. So Glenn went over and met the little aproned guy, who seemed hesitant, but obviously couldn’t think quickly enough for a reason not to rent the space to Glenn. Besides, along with the Hesse, Glenn had a lot of money in that backpack. Out of it he pulled a week’s rent in advance. That changed things. The proprietor, mumbling something about the large family he had to support, slipped the clutch of bills into his apron pocket.

As for the rest of the townspeople, they called him lo pazzo (“the mad man”), and noticed that the bats swooping down from the campanile into the piazza at dusk were more numerous since his arrival. (They believed in everything except coincidences.) Mushroom pickers are naturally suspicious anyway, because there are never enough mushrooms to go around, and the pickers must go to great lengths to keep their secret caches hidden from one another. But Glenn made the townspeople wary for another reason: he was alone. They mistrusted (and pitied) him more for that, his lack of a companion, than for anything else. Here, unless he declared his intentions early, a single man, even a priest, was a potential problem for everyone.

“Southern Italy suits my temperament, matches my mood,” Glenn, stubbornly oblivious, wrote in his journal at a wobbly table in the cafe. “Everyone is so full of mad passion, I’ll tell you, on the street I came upon a man who had worked himself up into such a religious frenzy he had branded his chest with a red-hot crucifix. With pride he shows to everyone he meets, even me, his still-healing scars, like two raised braids of shiny pink satin.

“Not only the people but the landscape suits me,” he went on. “Here it happens to be lush, but three miles away it’s as barren as the surface of the moon. In either place, I’m told, volcanoes and earthquakes, dramatic and unpredictable, may occur at any time. At least in this damp little forest we are not subject to another geological phenomenon that plagues the barren acreage: mudslides. In the town just this side of here, these occur with alarming frequency (all that’s required is a punishing rainstorm) and with such ferocity that it’s not uncommon for whole houses to topple. Recently, I was part of a small crowd that watched from an adjacent hill as an entire church was carried away on a river of roiling mud. We heard a cracking—a sound like that of a giant tree being felled—as the church was severed from its foundation and heaved up. Its steeple looked like the swaying mast of a tall ship. What a spectacle! I couldn’t help but be oddly elated. It felt as if I were seeing a ship launched and sunk almost simultaneously. Birth, death, the whole span in an instant! I tried to hide my euphoria from the others, and think I was mostly successful.

“Anyway, the church wasn’t so special, as Italian churches go; there are plenty more where that one came from. On a hike, during which I sent many mushroom pickers scurrying lest I detect their secret hoards, I stopped by a tiny jewel of a chapel and prayed awhile. An old man in a oily yellow sweater prayed in the pew ahead of me; his short-haired dog, the same color as the sweater, and with the same oily sheen, sat in the aisle on its haunches. When my kneeler creaked, the dog twisted its wrinkled neck around to look at me, and growled under its breath, as if it could hear my prayers and knew that they were selfish. On my way out, I put an offering in the poor box, like a gambler; the coin, hitting the bottom of the empty tin, sounded like a canon firing. The dog barked—a sharp yip of fear—then groaned with embarrassed annoyance; it hated being startled.

“Are you surprised that I pray now?” Glenn asked the written page. “How could I not pray in such a place? I’m surrounded by people who believe in magic potions, magic numbers, prophetic dreams; fate, luck, spells, miracles; saints who can cure; who can fly; who can hover like helicopters. Presumably, you may legitimately ask, Have the people who speak of these things seen them with their own eyes? “Well, my cousin heard it from a neighbor and she is related to the one who saw it” is a frequent sort of rejoinder. Oh. Well. What further proof would one require?

“Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that they believe. And I sorely envy them. I have been trying to emulate them. They certainly are unimpressed by earthly authority. Even priests amuse them. Sometimes God Himself slips, in their opinion. It is said that a local man trying to stop a volcanic eruption carried a statue of the Sacred Heart from the church and stood with it in the path of the bubbling lava. But the lava kept coming. So the man threw the statue down, and egged the lava on. My kinda guy.”

At another table in the cafe, a thin, weary-looking woman in her forties slowly stirred a murky brown cafe freddo and puffed on a tapered cigar. Her mouth was heavily painted with dark lipstick, her furry eyelashes were fake. She wore a black-and-white striped turban to completely cover her hair. Her name was Creatura: Lucia Creatura—the town’s retired whore.

Her charms were no longer of use, but the townspeople continued to support her, because she had so ably fulfilled her civic function in her earlier years, keeping virgins virginal. They also allowed her to maintain a facade of being a solid citizen, especially in front of strangers, like Glenn, who had no clue to her history.

Glenn smiled at Lucia Creatura when she caught him looking at her; but seeing this, others in the cafe elaborately rolled their eyes. One of them, a workman who had carried his ladder with him into the cafe, tapped a knuckle on Glenn’s shoulder and told him the lady was no longer working on her back, as he put it. Glenn said in his Roman Italian that he’d only meant to be friendly; he hadn’t been trying to pick her up. But the idiom didn’t translate; he was misunderstood. “Nobody,” his informant replied, meaning, Nobody had yet taken her place. The vacancy, for a wayward-leaning girl, was wide open, and for everybody’s benefit, needed to be filled fairly quickly.

That night, in the glass and mirror shop, directly below the spot where Glenn lay sleeping, a piece of beveled stock tipped and broke. A cat chasing a mouse past it, perhaps? The aproned proprietor, sweeping it up the next dawn, blamed the breakage on Glenn. Not that he thought he had done it deliberately. Glenn brought bad luck, that was all, and he tried to think of a way to be rid of him.

Glenn hiked through the dark woods back up to the chapel for the daily Mass. Until he’d come to Italy, he’d never been to a Catholic service, so he was impressed, even though the priest in this town was an unpleasant, pear-shaped fellow, whose hair looked as if he wet-combed it with water from a mud puddle. Already seated in the pews, when he got there, were several old men, including the one with the yellow dog. There was also a group of women, a half-dozen or so, all wearing black. One might mistake them for mourners— widows, perhaps. In fact, these were monachi di casa: the house nuns.

Like house nuns in neighboring towns, these women were unmarried: they had taken informal vows. Most of them had once wanted to be real nuns, but events had prevented them: they had been forced to stay home to care for a sick parent, or were sickly themselves. Or they had done poorly at the convent as postulants.

The townspeople didn’t greatly respect the house nuns. They didn’t trust them. Why did they like to hang around the priest so much? What did they want from him? Of course it was assumed they were in love with him. Daily these women received the communion wafer from him, kneeling and sticking their pointed tongues out far. Weekly they confessed to him, pulling the confessional curtain tightly closely around them. The priest had a devoted housekeeper, but still the house nuns brought him armloads of cut flowers and fussily arranged them, competing to bring the prettiest bouquets or simply the most.

One of the house nuns wasn’t like the rest She was young. She was also beautiful. Her hair was black as squid ink and fell across her shoulders like a luxurious cape. Her skin was smooth and unbroken, the color of eggshell. She was neither too fat, nor too thin. She was perfect. She looked holy, genuinely. She prayed with her fine slim hands pressed together, fingers pointed up, thick fringe of eyelashes mashed closed, pretty lips moving, as if she really believed she was talking to Someone.

Glenn speedily spotted her, and thereafter couldn’t take his eyes off her. He admired her body; he admired what he took to be her soul; he watched her praying and forgot completely about trying to pray, himself.

The other house nuns noticed his attentions, and sent up a rustle of alarm. The slick-headed priest on the altar noticed, too, and gave Glenn dagger-eyed looks meant to discourage him. But Glenn was too distracted to care. He watched her especially when she went up for the communion wafer. Earlier, Signorella Sassolino, one of the other house nuns, with a nose hooked and bumpy as a gourd, had suggested to this new house nun that she wear the same black stockings and boxy black nun’s shoes that the others did; instead, the foolish girl wore little black slippers and her own bare legs, and now look what was happening! Lo pazzo’s eyes were positively devouring her.

Glenn took communion, too (he’d been raised an Episcopalian and didn’t know he was forbidden). Coming back, he took a new seat, closer to the beautiful one, but Signorella Sassolino hissed her name—”Bianca!”—and told her to come sit by her, around the side of a wooden column, and the obedient girl did exactly as she was told, so Glenn’s view of her was blocked. He was undeterred. After the priest had drunk up the last of the wine and slurred his benediction, making a haphazard crisscross in the air, Glenn made sure to walk behind the girl while filing out of the chapel.

“The black cloth of the dress she wore smelled sweetly of starch,” he would scribble into his journal later that day. “The top of her head smelled of soap and sunlight. I was sniffing up all her smells when the hooked-nosed one tried to burrow between us. She had nearly succeeded when I stopped short and knocked her with an elbow. I didn’t apologize, though. An amazing sight in the chapel doorway had caught my eye. In fact, everybody had stopped to take it in, but only I didn’t understand it. All the others seemed to know exactly why a muscled guy, about my own age, was down on his hands and knees, his tongue to the floor. They all nodded and approved as he proceeded to lick the floor—yes, lick the floor! He licked a path all the way from the door to the feet of one of the painted plaster statues on the altar. He worked at his task methodically, unstintingly, even with gusto. What the hell was going on?

“Dragging tongue,” the old man with the dog told me. Payment for favors granted, he explained. Favors granted by God, he added, in case I was that thick. But what could the favors have been? I asked. They must have been immenso, I said. The old man gave me a look that told me that kind of information was only the muscled man’s business. I turned around to look for the pretty young woman again, but her cronies were shuffling her out the door, completely surrounding her like a big black cloud.

“(Pause for long sigh.) She reminds me of the public-school girls I used to know on summer vacations home from Wickens. On sweaty August nights in the basement of the Catholic church, I danced close with many black-haired girls that looked exactly like her. They never tried to make easy, witty conversation over the noise of the band, like Wickens girls; instead, they said things bluntly, and not often with words. Before I learned this about them, I’d once shouted into the ear of one: “Do you like golf?” And she had shouted back, emphatically, “No!” End of conversation, our verbal one, that is. Later, I made the mistake of driving her home. Her father heard my Super Beetle pull up in the driveway, and he came out in his T-shirt. I swear, he looked right through to the skull of me.

“(Another long sigh.) Do you think I’ll have to lick the floor of the chapel in order to meet her?”

Glenn’s landlord slept on his cutting table. He hadn’t gone home after closing, but had decided to stay the night with his wares in order to protect them. When daylight came, and he unsqueezed his eyes, and found that nothing had been broken, instead of being pleased, he struggled vainly to figure out what that might prove.

Glenn himself had passed a miserable night, after eating a supper of salt cod and fizzy wine, all the while thinking unholy thoughts about the house nun. Filled with anxious yearning, he ran without stopping up the hill to the chapel, but waiting there for him was only disappointment. How smug and satisfied Signorella Sassolino looked when she saw him come through the door. All the other house nuns and even the priest on the altar, his lips unnaturally red and glistening with the same sheen as his hair, shared the same look. Bianca was at the priest’s house, on her pretty knees, scrubbing the cold stone floor.

Glumly, ghostly, Glenn left without saying so much as an “Our Father.”

He went to the cafe to mope at his usual table; he took out his notebook and wrote: “Well, I suppose I never was meant to be an Italian. People (Americans, I mean) sing the praises of the happy, friendly Mediterranean folk, but more often than not they look and must feel the way I do now. Italian men are supposedly so macho, at least in Mafia movies, cuffing their kids and wives, but here, in the flesh, it is they who must fling their arms over their heads to ward off wifely blows.

“There is no use trying to emulate them—was that my purpose in coming here this summer? Or was it to believe in something other than myself? Something beyond this world? Well, the fact is, I think I’m on the verge of believing in earthly things now more than ever.”

The attitude of Glenn’s pen changed abruptly when he was startled by Lucia Creatura, the retired whore, in her turban. She was coming over in a swish of musk oil and cigar smoke to speak with him.

To his amazement, she sat herself down, put her pointy chin in her hands, and told him she had heard that he had been staring at her daughter in the chapel.

“Yours? Your daughter?”

“Yes. What do you want with her?” Lucia Creatura asked in her throaty whisper.

“Listen, it’s not what you think,” said Glenn.

“How do you know what I think?”

“Look, I’m a nice guy,” insisted Glenn.

“You are, are you?”

“Yes, and I come from a good American family. I went to good schools. I’ve done very well at them.”

“Is that how you learned your overeducated Italian?”

“I’m sorry if it offends you. I happen to love your country— I’ve studied it. Is that so awful? You should be complimented.”

“That isn’t the way things work around here. But look. I’m not offended, and you shouldn’t be offended by me. I’m only asking questions. You don’t have to answer them.”

“I’d like to ask some questions of my own, about your daughter.”

Signorina Creatura signaled him to lower his voice and move in closer to her. “Let me tell you a little about her first. Bianca takes care of everything for me. The shopping, the cooking, the laundry, all the household chores, without complaint. Oh, I tell you, she scoops up cats and children into her arms, but she is not all sweetness: she is smart, cannot be fooled. The final proof: she sees the good in me. What I’m saying is that she would make the perfect wife. The only trouble is, she probably never will be married.”

“Why not?”

“Nobody wants to marry the daughter of a woman like me.”

Glenn protested: “That’s crazy! She shouldn’t be treated that way because of you!”

This seemed to be the response she wanted; her mouth briefly became a sickle curve of a smile, then, serious again, she said: “Everybody thought it was so sad that she wouldn’t be married. But none of their sons would marry her. Oh, no, not them! Twenty years ago she was born, and I prayed she wouldn’t end up like me. But now something almost worse has happened since she’s fallen into the clutches of those damn fools in black, who kiss the fat ass of that priest!”

“Why didn’t she move away, to a place where nobody would know her?”

“Have you heard the old saying, “Choose horses and women from your own neighborhood?” Anyway, Bianca couldn’t travel alone. A woman? A girl?” She laughed bitterly. “And I couldn’t go with her. Two women traveling in a pair is almost worse than two singles. Besides, they support me here. I couldn’t leave, I can’t leave, I would starve. That’s why I was so glad to hear that you seemed interested, even after what I’ve just told you.”

She smiled, a coy smile this time, and Glenn returned it with an uneasy one of his own: he was in a foreign country, he needed to be careful. He dimly recalled the troubles of a boy he’d known at Wickens, who went to the Philippines on an student exchange program. . . . Cultures were different. Language was slippery. Still, he felt himself being drawn into the swirl of this woman’s way as surely as if he had been the smoke she drew into her lungs.

“People shouldn’t be alone, and you’re alone,” Signorina Creatura said in the voice of a purring cat. “You could be together with my daughter. You could make her very happy, and you’d make me happy, too.”

“I have a family—”Glenn faltered.

“What? You’re already married? Why didn’t you tell me at once?”

“No, I mean, I have a mother and a father—”

“Why have you traveled so far away from them, then?”

“I don’t live with them anymore, but anyway, I needed time to think.”

“Think? Think about what?”

But he couldn’t explain it in the Italian he knew.

“Never mind, never mind,” said Lucia Creatura. “Besides, you and my daughter are better off making up your own language, eh?” She nudged him and repeated this last sentence several times, not because Glenn had any trouble understanding it, but because she liked the sound of it.

Late that night, listening to the shopkeeper’s whistling snores, Glenn confided to his journal: “Such a used-up woman—nobody would be surprised to knock on her chest and hear a hollow sound. But, I’ll tell you, she did me the greatest favor that anyone has ever done for me: she took me home with her, and Bianca was there! Beautiful Bianca! How I love her! I know it sounds crazy, but I do! She is whole! She is pure! She is herself, no other. And when I’m in her presence I feel that I can be that way, too!

“She was in a flowered skirt and white short-sleeved blouse, not her dowdy black church clothes. Her arms are like swan’s necks! She seemed frightened of me, so I didn’t try to speak with her directly. Her mother went on and on, though, about various things. Don’t ask me what. I didn’t hear her.

“Bianca served the meal we ate. The bread! The cheeses! And of course, broiled mushrooms that taste like nothing less than pieces of the clean earth itself. Delicious, and all of it well-served on blue-and-white china, even in the dreary apartment Bianca and her mother call home. Everything is rickety. The first chair I was offered actually collapsed under me. We laughed (even Bianca), but after laughing, I wished that I were handy. I would fix everything for them. Maybe I can learn. . . .

“But what am I saying? I need to be on my guard. Remember Justin Kruger’s predicament: He asked Wilhelmina the beautiful Filippino girl to dance and the next thing he knew, he was engaged to her; somehow, asking her to dance the way he did, signaled marital intent to her family of little bruiser father, brothers, uncles. How did he get out of that one? Diplomacy, gentlemen. The Wickens way. Otherwise known as wheedling. But maybe Justin would be better off with Wilhelmina . . . ? I hear he has gone off the deep end at Hobart and William Smith. Acid every week. That’s how he’s trying to lift himself out of this world.

“Before I left, Signorina Creatura insisted that I have a little wild berry pudding. I was so full, I took only a taste. She said, “You’re tall like a tower but thin, nothing but chicken skin. Maybe if you put on a little weight, Bianca would like you better.” Bianca was out of earshot, thank God, in the kitchen starting on the dishes. What else could I do? To shut her up, I tried to eat more.

“Oh, God. I feel sick. To make matters worse, my damn landlord is downstairs again, sawing wood like one of The Three Stooges! He sleeps down there because he doesn’t trust me? Well, I’ve got news for him: I don’t trust myself! There’s no telling what I’m up to!”

Glenn encountered Signorella Sassolino on his way to Mass the next morning. She had obviously been waiting for him in the bakery doorway. She had only one thing to say to him, she said, shaking a boney finger: “If you touch her, she’ll end up like her mother! And it’ll be all your fault! She’ll be at church today, because she won’t be prevented from that by you. But you shouldn’t look at her the way you do! I’m warning you, pazzo.”

“I’ll do whatever I damn well please,” said Glenn. “Get away from me, woman!” And he flapped his arms as one does to scare birds out of the garden.

This time Mass was not a regular Mass but a funeral; so not only Bianca and the house nuns and old men were in attendance, but many others, too, including several mushroom pickers with their baskets at their sides. Bianca sat with Signorella Sassolino and kept her black-veiled head bowed in prayer. When she went up to take communion this time, he saw that her legs were covered by stockings of a thick black mesh. Well, it was easy enough for Glenn to peel them off in his imagination.

After the service, Glenn went along with everybody else as they followed the coffin to the cemetery for the burial. It was a long trek past sprawling squash patches—large oddly-shaped vegetables bound to each other by vines, bound to the earth.

At the gravesite, the muddy hole gaped open, and the priest began to pray aloud, using his poorly rendered amateur theatrics as accompaniment. Some began to cry. Yes, this man had been a good man, the priest intoned. He’d worked as a mushroom picker from the time he was a child until he was feeble; at home, every fall, he had made delicious wine. And wine makes blood, the priest reminded them. As he said these words—”Vino fa sanguel“—he made an extravagant gesture with both arms. Apparently, however, it was too much. He lost his footing and fell backward. Everybody gasped. He tried to save himself by grabbing the air, but in the end he grabbed onto nothing, and fell into the open grave.

The two gravediggers pulled the priest out as he swore at il diavolo, glaring at Glenn. Prayers were over, he announced surlily, one shoe gone, lost in the muck.

He gave the signal, and the diggers quickly lowered the coffin in. Everybody started to walk down the hill while, behind them, the shovelfuls of earth were being scraped and thrown.

Glenn had no trouble inviting himself to the funeral meal; nobody stopped him as again he drifted along with the crowd, into a house shuttered against the sun, which belonged to the dead man’s daughter. It was dark inside, and the house was made even smaller than it was by all the elbowing townspeople eager to eat a free meal; but Glenn easily found Bianca, who dodged him—though, mysteriously, she kept catching his eye, too.

On a table were arranged trays of salami, stuffed pastas, marinated vegetables. Along with everybody else, the house nuns ate hungrily, with both fists. While they were so preoccupied, Glenn found the right moment to sidle up to Bianca. To his surprise, though she still looked frightened of him, she didn’t back away; instead, from one of her black sleeves she produced a little iced cake.

Glenn was elated, but unsure. “What’s this supposed to mean?” he laughed. She wouldn’t speak. He tried again: “What’s up? What am I supposed to do? Eat it? Or put it under my pillow?”

Still no words from her, just a bitten lip and a terrible look of guilt. So Glenn ate the cake in three swift bites, then brushed the crumbs from his beard.

Immediately, Bianca looked relieved, her shoulders relaxed; something had been accomplished, but what? She waited at the edge of a new emotion, watching his face.

The icing had a bitter aftertaste. It tasted as if lemon seeds had been ground up and stirred into it. Then, almost at once, Glenn’s stomach pinched and cramped him up double. “Oh, my God! What have you done to me?” He dropped to his knees, clutching his middle.

Bianca’s hands flew to her face. Her eyes grew to the size of plates. She ran crying to Signorella Sassolino, who comforted her against her shoulder. Nobody helped Glenn.

“What’s happened? What’s happened? What is this?” It was Signorina Creatura, who found him as he staggered down the street on the way back to his room. But he couldn’t speak.

Anyway, she knew exactly what to do. She took him home, put him into Bianca’s bed. Boiled up a tea of certain crushed seeds and twigs, and made him drink it. He slept. He awoke with chills, in drenched sheets. He slept again, possessed by a bit of cake given to him by a strong-willed girl.

“She won’t come home now,” Signorina Creatura said as much to herself as to Glenn. It was night now and Glenn’s eyes had fluttered, he was moaning; she knew he could hear her.

Finally, he was able to say: “She tried to poison me! I can’t believe it!”

“Don’t feel so sorry for yourself. You didn’t die, did you?”

“I might have died if you hadn’t come along.”

“You wouldn’t have been poisoned in the first place if I hadn’t come along. Anyway, you wouldn’t have died. That was just a warning.”

Glenn grumbled to himself; then he said: “I wouldn’t have married her, you know.”

“Well, then, it’s better this way. She’ll be one of them. She’ll be what she will be.”

“Yes, but what about me?” he asked her—her in her skunk-striped headdress. He didn’t know whom to be angriest at in this black-and-white world.

“Next time, don’t think your eyes can have everything they see.”

He was well enough by the next morning to make it back to his room. The shopkeeper met him at the door with a lie. He said that since Glenn hadn’t come home last night, he’d rented his room to someone else.

“Well, guess what?” said Glenn. “I’m leaving anyway, right this second.”

That is, right after a final entry was made in his journal:

“My soul wanted something genuine and what did it get? Italians like these are craftier, more dangerous than they appear. So they’ve sent me packing. Did I pass the test—or fail it? I’ll have to find another way. I don’t know this country anymore. I’ll find my own country, thank you very much.”

On his way out of town, Glenn passed the priest’s house, full of house nuns cleaning, cleaning. “There he goes,” said Signorella Sassolino, her nose made bright by equal parts delight and an 11 A.M. celebratory blackberry cordial.

“He isn’t so mad, after all, if he’s got the sense to go now,” the priest said to Bianca, who was giving him a shoulder rub, according to his explicit instructions.

“He was the devil, wasn’t he?” Bianca pleaded with the priest, who in reply turned his head and nicked one of her fingers with a kiss.

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