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Long Shadow on the Lawn

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn Indicative that suns go down,

—emily dickinson

About noontime she washed her hair, then came

downstairs with it falling wet about her neck and shoulders, and walked straight through the house and out the back door. As she passed through the kitchen she saw Frankie and Heman and William sitting around the table on the screened porch, eating lunch, but they did not look up or hear her as she went by. Frankie and Heman were sitting so close to each other that their shoulders touched, and Frankie was laughing with her head thrown suddenly back and the perspiration glistening freshly on her broad black face.

She let the screen door fall silently to behind her and stood on the doorstep, looking right and left. The yard was empty except for half a dozen geese wandering in a loose group toward the house from the stable door. She came down the steps and walked toward them, swinging her damp towel lightly from one hand.

“Geese, get out of my way,” she said.

They scattered, uttering harsh alarms. She stood in the middle of the yard, feeling the noonday sun blazing down on her wet hair; shaking it before her face, she saw round shining drops slide gently the length of the light brown strands and hang translucent at the ends.

One of the gray cat’s half-grown kittens, tiger-striped, woke up from a nap under the lilacs, stretched, and came slowly across the yard toward her.

“Tiger—” she said.

She squatted on her heels, running her hand swiftly from the kitten’s ears to the tip of the long tail it arched high in appreciation. She looked into the tawny eyes.

“Come along, cat,” she said, scooping it up, rising, and cradling it in her arms. “You come along with me.”

She walked across the yard to the open gate leading to the track and kept straight on walking, staying on the track and feeling the soft dust rising about her bare ankles. When she came to the gate on the other side of the track, she set the kitten down on the far side of the fence and opened the gate and came inside herself. Two mares and their colts were in the field, standing motionless in the shade of a group of trees at the farther end.

She sat down on the grass, shaking her hair out for the sun to shine on.

“Nobody can come here without our seeing them coming,” she said. She picked up the kitten and set it down in her lap. “If he comes we’ll run,” she said. “I’ll run faster than you can run.” ‘

The sun blazed straight down and the branches of the trees across the field lifted and fell a little, peacefully, in the hot noon breeze. The grass was warm, and the half-grown kitten, heavy in her lap, fell asleep. She touched its long whiskers lightly with the tips of her fingers and it shook its head suddenly without opening its eyes.

When her hair was dry she got up and walked back across the track toward the yard. The kitten followed her, running a pace or two behind. Halfway across the track she stopped and took off her sneakers, tied the laces together, and hung them over her shoulder. The thick dust was like plush underneath her feet.

Heman was in the yard as she came by.

“Miss Marcy, you better get out of that sun,” he said. “Your face looks red as a beet to me.”

She lifted her hair that was damp with perspiration behind where it had rested upon her neck and stood holding it with both hands on top of her head, her feet spread wide, her body lightly defined beneath her limp brown-and-white checked gingham dress.

“Has Father come home yet?” she said to Heman.

“No,” said Heman, “he ain’t come home. It ain’t that easy to find a man who don’t want to be found. You look and you look, and wherever you look he been there before and already gone. Likely your daddy won’t be home before dark.”

She let her arms fall and after a minute turned around and walked slowly into the house. Frankie was in the kitchen making chili sauce; she was standing at the sink peeling a pan of tomatoes, and on the stove a big kettle was already boiling. It smelled good: a spicy, rich, warm odor floating through the house and out the open windows.

Marcy came into the kitchen, walking soundlessly on her bare feet, but letting the screen door slam behind her. Frankie turned around when she heard the screen door slam.

“Where you been all day, for heb’ms sakes?” she said. “Here it’s past two o’clock and you ain’t had no lunch yet.”

Marcy came over and looked into the kettle that was boiling on the stove, and then she went up to the sink and looked at the tomatoes that Frankie was peeling.

“I washed my hair,” she said to Frankie.

“Anybody can see that,” Frankie said. “You’d ought to do something with it now—curl it up pretty instead of lettin’ it hang around like an old switch of hay.”

Marcy pushed her hair back absently over her shoulders. She looked at the red juice running over Frankie’s hands.

“It looks like blood, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Blood?” said Frankie. “It don’t look like nothin’ of the sort.”

“Yes, it does,” said Marcy. “It looks like blood.” She went over to the refrigerator and opened it and took out a pitcher of buttermilk and poured herself a glass. “There’s some cornbread left from lunch settin’ in the oven,” said Frankie. She kept looking at Marcy over her shoulder. “You’re gittin’ too big to be runnin’ around here without any shoes,” she said. “You’re almost seb’mteen years old; you’re a young lady now.”

Marcy sat down at the table and took a long drink of the buttermilk.

“When do you think Father will come home, Frankie?” she said.

“He’ll come home when he finds your Uncle Fonse,” said Frankie. “That’s when he said he was comin’ home and not before.”

“What if he doesn’t find him?” Marcy said.

“He’ll find him all right,” reiterated Frankie. She began chopping up the tomatoes with her knife.

Marcy sat watching her while she drank her buttermilk.

“No, he won’t,” she said after a little while.

Frankie stopped chopping suddenly and turned around.

“How do you know?” she demanded, with a wary expression on her face.

“I’ve got a feeling,” Marcy said, She sat gazing reflectively at the thick white buttermilk in her glass. “They won’t find him this time,” she said after she had been quiet for another little while. “You heard how he acted yesterday down at Clint’s. He knows better this time; he won’t let them catch him again.”

Frankie’s face wore a mistrustful look; she stood leaning against the sink, looking at Marcy, and holding her knife loosely in her hand.

“I wouldn’t like nothin’ to happen around here like happened down at Mr. Clint’s yesterday,” she said emphatically. “Tearin’ telephone wires right out’n the wall . . . No sir, I don’t want nothin’ like that happenin’ around here.”

“Uncle Fonse is as strong as anything,” said Marcy. “He about half-killed somebody up at that hospital the first time they came and put him away. They’re all afraid of him up there; that’s why they always watch him so close.” *

She looked at Frankie over the edge of her glass, She saw that Frankie was getting scared.

“How come they let him git away again then?” Frankie said. “It ain’t six months ago since the last time yet.”

Marcy finished her buttermilk. “Uncle Fonse is as smart as anything too,” she said. “It isn’t easy to keep a man like Uncle Fonse locked,up. Father says Uncle Fonse is the smartest man in Ohio who’s never been inside a college or a jail.”

She got up and walked over to the screen door and stood looking out at the afternoon sunlight blazing down on the empty yard.

“Heman and William are right out there,” she said. “If we give a screech, they’ll come a-running.”

“I wouldn’t wait for no screechin’,” Frankie said dramatically. “I got me this knife . . . .” She brandished it significantly.

Marcy smiled, stretching herself as she stood on tiptoe and raised her arms.

“Uncle Fonse wouldn’t hurt you, Frankie,” she said. “He wouldn’t want any more out of you than coffee and cornbread.”

Frankie debated, relaxed, and went back to her chopping.

“No, honey, I guess he wouldn’t,” she said. “Your Uncle Fonse ain’t got no call to be mad at me.” She relaxed and debated further, fitting her puzzlement to the rhythmical swinging strokes of her knife. “He was the good-humored-est man I ever seen before that black crazy fit came on him,” she said. “What for a thing like that had to happen to a fine man like your Uncle Fonse I’d like to know.”

“Maybe it’s in the family,” said Marcy. “Did you ever know anybody who had it in the family, Frankie?”

“Why, honey, I sure did,” Frankie said. She finished cutting up the tomatoes, put them into a kettle, and began to peel a large white onion. “When I was a youngster down around Maysville, they was a man who killed his wife and whole famb’ly with an axe, all but one boy that got away, and that boy grew up and got himself a wife and children and killed his whole famb’ly with an axe. It’s a curse a famb’ly gits on it. Maybe somebody put a curse on your Uncle Fonse.”

“Maybe,” said Marcy. She came across the kitchen on soundless bare feet and stood beside Frankie, watching the dry white skin fall from the onion, smelling the crisp, sharp odor in the hot, still air. “I wonder when he’ll come around here,” she said. “I wonder if he’s around here now. Maybe he’s just waiting till it gets dark enough.”

“Till it gits dark enough for what?” said Frankie sharply. “Miss Marcy, you want to quit talkin’ like that now. There ain’t nobody comin’ round here today.”

“Uncle Fonse is coming,” said Marcy.

She went over to the stove and picked up the big wooden spoon and meditatively stirred the chili sauce that was boiling in the kettle.

Frankie turned around, putting her hands on her hips.

“Now what gits into you to say a thing like that?” she said. “Your Uncle Fonse, he knows good and well they’ll catch him if he comes anywheres around here. He ain’t goin’ to take no chance like that.”

“That’s why he’s waiting till it gets dark,” said Marcy.

Frankie turned back to the sink, pushed the cold water faucet on till the water ran hard, and began to wash some green peppers under it.

“I ain’t goin’ to listen to talk like that,” she said with an air of finality.

“You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to,” Marcy said. “You don’t have to listen to anything. Only I’m warning you, because I know it’s true. He’s coming here to get me, as sure as you’re born.”

She turned her back on Frankie, walked across the kitchen, and stood with her feet wide apart, looking at the colored picture on the calendar that hung upon the wall. Frankie maintained a stubborn silence.

“He’s coming to get me,” Marcy explained to the long pink-clad lady upon the calendar, “because I called up and told Clint and Father he was here the last time. He said, ‘Marcy, don’t you tell,’ and I called up anyway, and now he’s coming to get me for that. He’s coming with a knife or maybe an axe . . .”

“Miss Marcy, if you don’t stop talkin’ that way this minute, I’m goin’ straight out of this kitchen,” Frankie said suddenly, in a determined tone. Her face looked blanched beneath its dark shining color. “Whyn’t you go upstairs and git yourself cleaned up?” she said. “Your daddy’ll maybe be home in a little while, and you ain’t studyin’ to be no help to me here.”

“I’ll help you if you want me to,” Marcy offered. “Do you want me to get you some jars from the cellar?”

“All right, go along, bring me up a dozen pints,” said Frankie.

“Maybe he’s down there, waiting,” Marcy said.

She opened the cellar door and went slowly down the steps, feeling the wood cool beneath her feet and the air growing damp and cool as she descended. The dark earthy-odor of the cellar rose about her. She peered over the wooden rail beside the steps, but all she could see was empty space and shelves and the squat black furnace stretching its crooked pipes above it like an octopus’s arms.

She sat down, clasping her hands about her knees, on the fourth lowest step, where she could look out the small window into the yard. When she sat there her eyes were on a level with the ground outside, and the green bushy stalks of the four-o’clocks growing there looked tall and unfamiliar and near, like strange trees in a thick humid jungle. As she watched, the tiger-striped kitten prowled softly past; she saw its tawny eyes and cruel stripes.

She sat day-dreaming till she heard Frankie’s perturbed voice calling to her from the kitchen: then jumped up, hastily piled half a dozen empty jars into her skirt, which she held up apronwise with both hands, and ran upstairs again into the kitchen.

“Child, for heb’ms sakes, what was you doin’ down there?” said Frankie crossly. “You’re jest tryin’ to give me the fidgets today.” She took the jars out of Marcy’s skirt, rattling them down emphatically upon the table. “That dress was clean this mornin’; now it’s all over cellar-dirt and grass-stains,” she said. “You go on upstairs and tidy yourself up.”

“All right,” said Marcy. She walked over to the door leading to the dining roomi At the doorway she stopped for a moment and turned around. “Suppose he was down there watching me all the time,” she said. “Suppose he was standing right there behind the furnace, looking at me.”

She went on through the dining room and into the hall and up the stairs to the second floor. It was quiet up there, and hotter than it was downstairs; the air was heavy and yellow and thick with sunshine. She washed herself, and then went into her own room and put on a clean blue-and-white dress and combed her hair. She went to the window and looked out through the trees at the road in front of the house. Every now and then a car went by, rounded the curve in the road, and passed out of sight. The solid shadow of the house and the long quivering shadows of the trees were beginning to stretch across the road toward the opposite side. For the first time a cool shiver of apprehension touched her gently and silently withdrew.

WJhen she came downstairs again, the hot chili sauce was standing in jars on the kitchen table and Frankie was beginning to prepare the evening meal. She stayed in the kitchen with Frankie till Heman and William came in for their supper. Her father had not returned, and she ate out on the screened porch with the others. At the close of the long hot summer day Heman and Frankie spoke to each other in slurred lazy voices and William sat silent, his red-burned embarrassed face bent conscientiously to his plate. Marcy too was silent; she sat listening for the sound of her father’s car in the drive. A faint mature anxiety stirred within her.

When the meal was over, Heman and William got up and went back to the stable again. They would bring rickety wooden chairs outside and sit smoking their pipes, leaning the backs of their chairs against the stable wall. Frankie and Marcy cleared the table, and Marcy dried the dishes while Frankie washed them. Frankie’s talk was slow and surly as she plunged her hands into the steamy water.

“Hottest day of the year and I have to stand in this here kitchen over a boilin’ stove all afternoon,” she said. She was cross because Marcy’s father had not come home in time for supper and because she would have to fix something for him later in the evening. She said to Marcy in sulky criticism: “Child, I ain’t never seen anything look worse’n that hair of yours. Whyn’t you curl it up like I told you to? You been up to no good the whole day long.”

After the dishes had been put away, Frankie washed her face and slicked back her hair and got her pack of cigarettes off the cupboard shelf. She always went back to the stable summer evenings after the dishes had been washed, and smoked a couple of cigarettes with Heman.

“You scared to stay in this house alone?” she said to Marcy, at the door. “Heman and me, we’ll be right out in the yard. We’ll keep an eye up here all the time.”

“No, I’m not scared,” Marcy said. It was light still. “I was only pretending this afternoon,” she said.

Frankie went outside. Marcy watched her from the kitchen window as she crossed the yard and sat down beside Heman in one of the rickety chairs. She could hear their voices as Heman spoke to Frankie and Frankie, bursting into high laughter in return, reached over and slapped him on the leg.

She turned away from the window and walked aimlessly out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the living room. The house was perfectly still, and shadows were beginning to invade the quiet corners, though outside the sun still lay on the grass in long golden rays. Marcy sat down in one of the deep, comfortable, shabby chairs, feeling her bare, moist arms adhesive to the upholstering leather.

In the quiet house a clock’s ticking was persuasive of passing time and deepening gloom. The afternoon’s fears had been a perilous pretense of alarm, but now, as time ripened and silence deepened, a cool secret prickling of apprehension flowed cautiously over her body and then through her mind. A fancy took her that there was someone in the room with her. Someone was standing behind her chair, standing silent, watchful, waiting silently and patiently for her to turn. Deliberately she closed her eyes, simulating a relaxation which she did not feel. The steady approach, smooth thrum, and lonely receding sing of a passing car on the road outside lacked comfort, emphasizing isolation.

The conviction of the presence behind her persisted through the clock’s monotonous tick. She jumped up suddenly, turning, with a moment’s rash courage.

“Nobody there.” She laughed in immense and valorous relief. “Scared yourself worse than you ever scared Frankie,” she said.

She stood there a moment indecisive: then went over to the telephone, picked up the receiver, and called a number. Her brother Clint’s wife Ruth spoke to her over the wire in a space of seconds.

“This is Marcy,” she told her. “I’m coming over to your house right away.”

“No,” said Ruth. “Clint’s not here. And Heman and William are over at your house.”

“I’m coming anyway,” said Marcy. “Maybe I’ll even stay all night.”

She went back into the kitchen and opened the screen door to call back to Frankie where she was going.

“You want me to walk over with you, Miss Marcy?” Heman said.

“No,” she said. “That little way? I’m not afraid.” She closed the screen door again and walked through the silent house and out the front way. Under the trees before the house darkness was already beginning to gather, but on the road the golden light was still thick and reassuring. She walked along quickly, looking sideways as she passed at a clump of dark trees or a tall growth of weeds beside a fence. Automobiles went by two or three times. The air was cooler and began to smell of evening.

She crossed the road when she came to Clint’s place and walked along in the high grass beside the fence. The cool grass whipped her bare legs and she smelled the lush green evening scent of weeds. When she came into the yard she looked up and saw Ruth waving to her from the front window upstairs. She was putting Cynthia to bed.

“I’ll be right down,” she said. “The screen door’s locked.”

Marcy stood at the door looking through the screen into the hall inside, and in a few moments she saw Ruth coming down the stairs with Allan, who was six, beside her.

“You shouldn’t have come here, Marcy,” Ruth said to her as she let her in. “I told you over the phone, you should have stayed at home.”

Her face looked calm, but somewhere behind her eyes fear was hidden. She reached down and took Allan by the hand.

“Latch the screen door behind you,” she said to Marcy. “I wanted to shut the house up, but on a day like this, at this time of evening, you have to open the doors and let the air in.”

She spoke in a quiet normal voice, but the fear in her eyes communicated itself to Marcy without words and without inflections: a silent animal contagion. Marcy fought against it.

“What are you afraid of?” she said to Ruth. “Uncle Fonse isn’t going to come here again.”

“He came here yesterday,” said Ruth.

She went into the living room with Allan, and Marcy followed her. They sat down, facing each other; Allan sat beside Marcy on the couch.

“I was in the dining room with Allan when he came, said Ruth. “He asked me for some eggs and a cup of coffee. I’m afraid of him, Marcy. I don’t know what I’ll do if he comes here again.”

“I wasn’t afraid of him,” Allan said.

“He wouldn’t hurt you,” Marcy said. “He didn’t offer to hurt you, did he, Ruth?”

Ruth shook her head.

“No,” she said. “He was just the way he always was. Only he didn’t want me to tell anybody that he was here. That was why he tore the telephone wires out of the wall. He said he didn’t trust me not to tell. When he picked up the telephone his eyes were such a queer bright blue. He didn’t look as if there was anything wrong with him except just then.”

The florid face, tangible paunch, and blue blazing eyes of her Uncle Fonse rose before Marcy with an insistent and embodied reality in Ruth’s quiet speech. She slipped her hand down and took Allan’s hand in hers.

“I was sorry for him,” Ruth went on in the same flat clear voice. “His clothes were all dusty and he’d been walking out in the sun without any hat. I got him the eggs and some coffee and a big piece of the gingerbread that I’d made in the morning. I was sorry for him but I was afraid of him too. I thought if I could only keep him from getting angry . . .”

“I wasn’t afraid of him,” Allan said.

He climbed over and sat down in Marcy’s lap.

“Did he say anything about me?” Marcy asked.

Ruth bent her head.

“He doesn’t like you, Marcy,” she said. “That’s the reason I wanted you to stay home with Heman and William. He still remembers about last time. His eyes looked funny when he talked about you.”

“He won’t come looking for me here,” said Marcy.

She smiled with bravado and bounced Allan up and down on her knees.

“Tell me a story, Marcy,” Allan said.

“I don’t know any stories,” Marcy said, “except the one Frankie told me today about a man down around Maysville who killed his wife and whole famb’ly with an axe, all but one boy that got away, and that boy grew up and got himself a wife and children and killed his whole famb’ly with an axe.”

“You oughtn’t to tell him things like that, Marcy,” Ruth said to her. She looked at Allan. “I think it’s time you went to bed,” she said.

“Tell me a long story, Marcy,” Allan said. He put his arms tightly around her neck and hung back, looking up into her face.

“You have to go to bed now,” Marcy said. “I’ll tell you a long story the next time I come.”

“Tomorrow?” said Allan.

“Maybe tomorrow,” said Marcy.

She got up, lifting him as she rose; he held his arms tightly about her neck.

“He’s too heavy for you, Marcy,” said Ruth.

“No, he isn’t,” Marcy said.

She carried him out into the hall and up the stairs to the second floor. He laughed when he felt himself slipping down.

“I’m too heavy for you, Marcy,” he said.

Marcy laughed too, but the laughter sounded strange in the hot quiet house. It was dusk upstairs.

Ruth came upstairs behind them and put Allan to bed. When the light was on in the bathroom and there were the noises of splashing water and Allan’s rich squeal of protest or enjoyment, it was almost cheerful for a while; but presently Allan was in bed with the lights turned out and Marcy and Ruth were standing in the hall.

“Let’s not go downstairs,” Marcy said.

She went into Ruth’s and Clint’s room and sat down there.

“It’s so hot up here,” Ruth said; but she too came in slowly and sat down.

They did not tell each other about the fear that made them feel safer here, upstairs in the dusk, than in the accessible rooms below.

They sat beside the open windows and they could see the sky growing dark outside, and the stars coming out, and the fireflies beginning to rise silently from the grass.

“I wonder where Uncle Fonse is,” Marcy said. “By this time maybe he’s a long way off.”

“Maybe,” said Ruth.

“He won’t come back here again,” Marcy said.

Her voice without confidence asked a question, which Ruth answered also without confidence.

“He might,” said Ruth. “He might not even remember he’s been here. Sometimes he remembers things now and sometimes he doesn’t.”

They looked at each other through the dark. Then the telephone shrilled suddenly in the hall downstairs.

Ruth jumped up.

“I’ll go with you,” Marcy said.

They went out into the hall and turned on the light. It looked bright and strange when they gazed down the stairwell. Ruth ran downstairs, but Marcy stayed at the head of the steps. She listened and heard Ruth talking over the telephone to Clint.

In a few minutes Ruth came upstairs again. Her face looked different, relieved and almost gay.

“That was Clint,” she said. “He’ll be home in an hour.”

“Did they find him?” asked Marcy.

“No,” said Ruth. She spoke with sudden reckless faith. “He’s probably miles and miles from here by now.”

They went back into the bedroom and sat down again.

“Your father’s coming home with Clint,” said Ruth. “He’s going to stop off for you here on his way.”

“All right,” said Marcy.

They sat in silence for a while.

The little flutter of gaiety and security subsided quickly, and a tense impatience took its place. They heard the loud steady stroke of crickets in the grass outside.

“Ruth,” said Marcy after a little, “isn’t it almost time?”

Ruth got up and looked at the faintly shining hands of a little clock which stood on the night-table beside the bed.

“It’s just fifteen minutes since Clint called,” she said.

She came back again and sat down beside Marcy before the window. They talked in low voices. Suddenly Marcy said:


They listened. A sound defined itself, was repeated, again repeated: a long, patient, tentative, rattling sound, as if someone were trying the screen door downstairs.

“Clint?” Marcy whispered.

Ruth shook her head.

Through the steady thudding of their hearts the sound came again, now more prolonged and forceful; they heard the dry rasp of wood against wood.

“We ought to call someone,” said Ruth. She stood up with sudden frightened resolution. “Heman and William, or the police,”

“No,” said Marcy. She got up too. “If we go downstairs he’ll see us.” She whispered: “We’ll be quiet and he’ll think there’s nobody here.”

They stood silent again, listening, imagining the man standing there below: the heavy bulk of his figure in the darkness, the tangible paunch, the bright blue, queerly blazing eyes. His clothes were covered with dust and he wore no hat.

“Maybe he only came back for something to eat,” said Marcy. “Maybe if we gave him something to eat he’d go away.”

She stood close to Ruth. She could see Ruth’s strained white face.

“I’m afraid of him,” Ruth said. “I’m terribly afraid. You never know what he might do, Marcy. Especially if he found you here . . .” The rattling patiently persisted below. It would stop for a moment and then begin again. They imagined the big freckled hands shaking the door to and fro with a strong, puzzled, infantile insistence. Ruth shuddered slightly.

“The poor old man,” she said with sudden nervous pity. “Why doesn’t he die? Why doesn’t God let him die?”

“Uncle Fonse won’t die,” said Marcy, standing straight and listening. “Uncle Fonse is as strong as anything.”

She felt very still inside, every inch of her concentrated on the sound below; and this stillness seemed to reach outside her as well, to spread through the gray quiet room and through the broad, silent, early night outside, so that even the harsh monotonous pulsation of the crickets seemed remote and unreal to her ears. She felt how it felt to be afraid. It was a strange feeling: as if every fiber of her body had suddenly come intensely alive, and wary, and desperate for its existence.

Ruth whispered: “Marcy, that latch isn’t very strong.” She put out her hand and Marcy took it.

“Maybe he’ll go away,” Marcy said.

They stood silent again, listening intently. The; rattling stopped.

Suddenly a sharp bright sound cut through the darkness: a long full peal of the doorbell below. Its bright warning plaint rang through the waiting house.

“Ruth,” said Marcy, “Ruth . . .”

The bell rang again, and again, and again.

“Why doesn’t he go away?” Ruth said to Marcy. She was shaking all over. “Why doesn’t he go away? Why doesn’t he go away?”

The long, patient, solemn peal of the doorbell sounded again, and again, and again, and again.


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