Subtle Entanglements

Gabriela Denise Frank

(USA)

You are never lonely in the company of your longing.
— Dina Relles
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October — Willapa Bay, WA: The morning I arrived at a monthlong artist residency, I read from Patricia Highsmith’s journal: What to say about Yaddo? A singularly dull bunch, no big names—though Marc Brandel is interesting. [Reader, she bedded him.] The soul lusts for its own corruption.

Highsmith’s woozy yearning electrified my thoughts. Would a fellow resident inspire my soul to lust? Was I capable of inspiration (or corruption) anymore?

That night at dinner, six of us shyly bared our faces. It was like getting naked on a first date—with five vaxxed strangers—though no one was eligible even as a fantasy fuck. Our jovial cohort was mainly grey-haired and married, the other forty-something novelist and I being the youngest. To my surprise, no one drank. We were all there to work. I bonded with the plainspoken yet tender septuagenarian photographer who assured me that mistakes are happy accidents [i]. Before turning in, we joked about our chastity beds: narrow bunks built into the walls of each lovely cabin. How the six-foot-two painter slept, I can’t imagine; the bed barely contained my five-foot-four frame.

“If people really wanted to, they’d fuck on the floor,” I teased the programme manager, who reddened and squirmed. His wince said, Do I need to keep my eye on you?

I couldn’t stop thinking about sex. Desire seeped out my seams, a burgeoning question sloshing about the bowl of my pelvis: would I go the rest of my life without doing it again? My husband’s open-heart surgeries occurred the day the hospital closed due to COVID. Nearly dying had blanched his desire; he feared a petit mort might invoke a grand one. Bedroom negotiations had since sputtered, withered—died.

The bay’s swelling tides churned my insides, all that breathing and heaving, ebbing and rising, lapping and sucking, the mucky mudflats randy with brine. In…and out, in…and out. Twice a day. (We used to do it twice a day.) In Willapa Bay, the water musts the bullrushes. Humps the verdant bird-laden wetlands. Leaches pearlescent stink from littleneck clams and molted crab carcasses. The tannic sheen of oyster shell middens, their busty, crusty milk-mounds bursting skyward: endless salt-spattered breasts, coated in calcium rupture.

“Self-contained individuals are not transformed by encounter,” Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World

Like the verdant bay, Tsing’s book pricked my yearning to be encountered. Transformed. 

Disturbed.

Amanita muscaria, known as fly agaric or fly amanita, makes its home amongst deciduous and coniferous trees. A symbiont, its lifecycle is entwined with the surrounding forest (as if all living things aren’t similarly linked). In addition to arboreal forests in the northern hemisphere, these white-gilled, white-spotted mushrooms are found in pop culture: the Super Mushroom power-up in Mario video games and single-family homes in The Smurfs franchise. Highly poisonous [ii], amanita’s colorful caps of orange and red tend to ward off accidental ingestion, however they are sometimes intentionally consumed as a means of suicide or for their psychedelic effects.

Willapa Bay is haunted by ghost animals: bears, elk, coyotes, wolves, deer. They stalk the woods unseen, their cryptid watchfulness soaking the soft, mossy carpet with vapor-dreams. By night, furry four-footed beasts forge tunnels through the tall grasses. They munch mushrooms and drop spongy crumbs from their wet mouths. Tiny frogs hidden deep in the damp salal trill twilight songs while silvery snail trails gleam across flagstones—drunken fairy graffiti that I can’t read.

To avoid Oysterville’s off-leash dogs and lonely octogenarian bachelors lurking near the church, I hike in Leadbetter Point State Park. Hourly showers sweep inland over the peninsula, awakening fungus symphonies. Though I meet more polypores than people on the path, I feel eyes on my body. From the canopy, sparrows and chickadees cheap Predator! 

I pray they’re not tweeting about a beast other than me.

Telltale scat plopped trailside suggests potential encounters: messy brown frosting (coyote), pellet pyramids (elk), ginormous splats (bears). At dinner we joke about what not to do if you meet a predator (don’t run—or, don’t be the slowest). The programme manager warns us about mushroom hunters picking illegally. Some are locals (harmless enough); some are hollowed-out men with brown glass teeth and muddy plastic bags who stare, spit, and snicker then slink off-trail in pairs. 

Hiking alone, I sing to ward off bears, to signal (which is to say, pretend) I’m not afraid of rape. Is it ironic to saunter around secretly wishing for sex while fearing sexual assault? Would I deserve it if those men grabbed me because

I dared to hike solo

I had been warned

I knew better, and was thus asking for it

my girly pink shirt screamed easy pickins?

The Bearberry Trail crosses the fingerlike peninsula at the root of the digit, tumbling from glassy bay to roiling ocean. In between, trees shiver with fall shadows, creak and scrape in the breeze, trading secrets between pine, cedar, and beech. Post-rainshower, the undulating forest floor is pregnant with sodden breath. In winter, you’d need waders (the trail floods); in summer, it’s mosquito heaven. In October, it’s otherworldly and fertile—straight outta Dagobah and blooming with mushrooms: red Super Marios, bulging boletus, orange amanitas, nut-brown porcini, and Tsing’s treasured matsutake. Vast bodies of mycelium exchange nutrients underground, interfingered root to rhizome. 

Tsing writes, “To find matsutake one must sense a heave, an inhalation.” Here we go, breathing and heaving again.

I flush from the florid aroma of damp fir and salty Pacific mist, the moisture a siren call: Come out, come out wherever you are!  Clusters of tiny umbrellas open as I pass—pop! pop! pop! pop!—white, brown, apricot, cream. Microscopic droplets cling to a newborn snowcap, transforming its friendly glans into a fuzzy hat. I giggle at my own dick joke.

Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that the Anishnaabe word for mushroom is puh-powee: the imagined sound fruiting bodies make rising from the duff, and a nod to the male sexual member they resemble: proud, stout—glistening.

The Forest is a metaphor for inward turning, an ancient refuge in whose sheltered stillness resides the source of life. Forest journeys are often part of heroic quests: through a performance of tasks and completion of trials, often in the dark, a hero proves her mettle. The tangible payoff is less valuable than how the quest shapes and slenderizes her. In the distilling of body and spirit a hero awakens her True Self.

In Willapa Bay, the forest is a metaphor for middle age: a shadowy, self-reflexive no-man’s-land between flip-flopping tides of viridian bay and grizzled seashore where end and infinity meet. On the ocean’s edge, signs prohibit visitors from disturbing nests of snowy plovers but they don’t warn against riptides, invisible to the untrained eye—yet present and deadly. How often do we gaze at our own demise and mistake the treacherous bounty for its surface thrall?

I linger on this lip of sand, shell-picking. Rarely do I encounter another human on the beach. The bashing whitecaps drown out buzzing reality; my mind drifts. [Confession: sometimes while hiking I imagine myself a hero at the midpoint of a mythical quest.] I fill my pockets with sand dollars and razor clam shells, gull feathers and bird bones bleached by the sun. Back at my cabin, I set each day’s amulets on a makeshift altar for inspiration. 

I’m not one to pray, though I do observe.

To heal the Sick Child, find four Blue Mushrooms. [iii]

Note: as with any quest, a physical journey and labors are required. 

Fear not: a helpful stranger will point you in the right direction and outline the process, though you must perform the work yourself.

  1. Go to the Heroes Guild. Search near the Demon Door. In a dark, moist corner, you’ll find the first Blue Mushroom.
  2. Meet the Single Woman lingering in the Picnic Area. Make her laugh by performing a dance three times. If this doesn’t work, tell her a joke. (Q: Why was the mushroom grumpy? A: He was a spore-loser!) She’ll reward you with a Blue Mushroom.
  3. Find the Trader in the Barrow Fields. Buy a Blue Mushroom from him for 1,500 gold pieces—or steal it. (Really, shame on you.)
  4. Talk to Cyril in the Guild Woods. He has a letter for a girl, Myra. Deliver Cyril’s letter and he’ll grant you a Blue Mushroom on your return if you tell him what Myra said. Or—you can kill Cyril and take the mushroom. (Seriously. Murder and theft?)
  5. Go to the Quay in Bowerstone and deliver the Blue Mushrooms to the Witch. She’ll concoct a potion to heal the Sick Child. (Wait. Whose kid is this?) 

Note: Blue Mushrooms have strange effects upon those who consume them. Both curses and cures contain consequences.

Note: as with any prize, Blue Mushrooms cannot be used by the Hero. Those closest to magic (and power) are often denied its boons. The Hero may perish while holding in her grasp the very antidote she requires. Strength aside, we are sometimes beyond our own saving.

Note: while epics are stories of redemption—a setting-right of cosmic balance—they are tragedies, too. Rarely if ever are heroes made whole again. The quest alters them irreparably.

Welcome back to reality, to Oysterville Cemetery where a bench bears a quote by local writer Willard R. Espy: I watch the slow breath of the bay, six hours in and six hours out.

So: he saw the breathing, too. 

Upon hearing my thrall at the bay’s creeping breath-waves, the programme manager directed me to this bench and to Espy’s work. A shiver slithered up my spine, reading the dead man’s anticipatory plagiarism of my private thoughts. They say there are no universal experiences, though there certainly are human ones. We are connected underground, billions of fruiting bodies linked by a common core: we need to see humanity in nature to believe we’re part of it. Having gained this knowledge, we toss the apple and shield our gaze from the unbearable truth: human bodies wither, putrefy, and decay—we, too, will be reduced to soil-stuff one day.

Cell to cell, our somatic responses to earth’s rhythms echo over time (the slow breath of the bay, six hours in, six hours out). We forget and remember our heavenly parentage: we are made of (star)dust. We feel what swells and bursts between, our curling tendrils yearning for kinship in the dark. Desire stalks us deep in the bones, the blood, the belly, the heart, the core. 

It shakes the mantle of our (be)long(ing). 

I’m called away from Leadbetter by the siren song of a rotting whale carcass on Klipsan Beach, its salmon-colored flesh hardened into striped sculpture. On seeing it, I gasp: —Oh. What we ingest, what overcomes, what digests, what beaches us. A poet notes (poetically) that there’s less of us in the world before our deaths than after. Our remains (re)fill the earth. Savasana. Final resting (re)pose.

A woman leading a meditation says it’s not about success, it’s about intention. Distraction provides a magic moment in which we can choose to return to the breath. Each breath is an opportunity to return to the next. If you have to begin again a thousand times, it’s fine. Follow one tide in…and out. In…and out. (There we go, breathing and heaving again.) You don’t have to change the way your mind runs from thing to thing. Rather, return to the breath. Your attention may jump into the past or future, into judgement or daydreams or quests for magic fungi. You may ponder the stormy shore break, the turning tide, the hungry mushroom hunters skulking about the Guild Woods. Each time you notice your attention straying, kindly and gently guide your mind back to the breath. Breathe…and begin again.

Note: beaching didn’t kill the whale. The weight of the whale’s body, usually supported by water, crushed the air from its lungs. The whale did not return to the breath—or, the breath did not return to the whale. The truth is, we are often the cause of our own suffering. Under the weight of our own crushing suffering, we often forget to breathe.

The lone bachelor in our cohort, a novelist in his seventies who writes beautiful sentences, insisted I see the whale. A beach walk was his pretense for getting to know me better, he says, and I’m glad he did: in death, the leviathan is breathtaking.

Question by question, the novelist wrings the past from me as we circle the corpse. Though I speak these intimacies freely, at the conclusion of our constitutional, I feel he’s taken something I wasn’t intending to give. (Did he…hurt you? Is that why you left?) When we return to his car, this refined English gentleman lets fly a barbaric yawp and beats his chest like a horny gorilla. My neck hairs stand erect. I freeze, recalling the advice about predators—and the mouthfeel of every man, old and young, married and not, who has kissed me without my consent. The novelists’s car is my way back, seven miles. I slip in side, fasten my seatbelt, listen politely, make no grand gestures. At a stoplight, he tilts his head and dredges up sickening sympathy for my teenage years: orphaned by a dead mother and a father who needed escaping. (You’re so strong.) 

To be fair, hadn’t I wished to be disturbed?

That night at dinner, the novelist sits too close. “I returned from our jaunt and wrote for the rest of the afternoon!” he announces to the table. He wants everyone to know we were together. “I haven’t had a workday this fruitful in years!” 

The ichor he withdrew from me has invigorated him. 

He queries another beach walk. What am I to say—No? I can tell: he’ll take my decline with umbrage. I admit: my unwillingness to be disliked is a flaw—and besides, nothing happened, right? Sunday morning, he texts to confirm. The three-dot bubble forms. Bloop. Hope so, he adds. In two words, a subtext of desire and longing. I remind myself: there is no tone on (sub)text. 

I don’t want to be alone with him [iv], but it would be awkward to back out. Instead, I invite the painter along and feign innocence at the Monkey Wrench this will present to the Novelist’s Quest. We converge in the Parking Lot (really, it’s a clearing near the Cabin Woods). On seeing the Painter, the Novelist stops short. I can tell: he wants to put the kibosh the whole goddamned thing, but he’s caught, too. Canceling will reveal his True Goal. The Novelist coughs, spits, and reluctantly ushers us into his Blue Rental Car. He guns the Engine in reverse, nearly sideswiping the Mother Tree, and peels out. (The Parking Lot is where our Chef harvests a secret trove of Chantrelle Mushrooms, which grow at the base of the Tree.) En route, the Novelist drives erratically, speeds, and takes turns too fast. I grasp the Panic Bar for Dear Life. The Air fills with burps of awkward conversation from the Painter in back. Upon emerging from the Blue Car at the Windswept Beach, our eyes meet—the Painter’s and mine. Normally stoner-stoic, he appears shaken. I shrug and offer no explanation. 

To the Novelist, I’ve become Medusa [v]: he refuses to look at me for the next two hours. In bringing the Painter, I’ve fractured our tacit quid pro quo. There’ll be no more exchanges, save my Head on a Platter. Having affronting the Novelist, I may become one of the dysfunctional daddy-obsessed Video Girls in his new Novel.

I let the Men walk ahead, jockeying in jocular exchange. Alone, I return to the breath. I run my fingers over the rough sutures that hold the gashes closed. Though my cellular walls are patched, I sense future rupture in the weak spots. Oh, the roles we play in each other’s quests: one hero’s grail, another’s death. A mere flick of the wrist [intention] separates accident from mistake.

The Novelist never asks me to walk with him again. 

I like people in whom the wrestlings are visible since they are the closest to the truth [vi]. We all lead three lives: the true one, the false one, and the one we are not aware of. [vii]

Back at Leadbetter, a toadstool the size of a man’s head sprouts trailside. A slick-brown dripping sponge, Boletus edulis var. grandedulis. Over two days, it molders, sags, and sinks. With each journey, I sew my heart-spores along the trail: sandy bay to forest, grassy dunes to sea. I nibble briny succulent seagrasses growing where the baywaters make sloppy salt-kisses on land. I yearn to stray off-path, to ferret out fox dens and roosts of snowy plovers, to cuddle their downy puffball chicks and sleep by a beach bonfire, however (like many things) these lands are off-limits. 

Eat me! tempt sextets of honey fungus.

I wink. Maybe later. 

I miss touch. I miss wild life.

Spore by spore, Tsing’s question What is bearable? infiltrates my mind. On a variant timeline, there’s no COVID, but my husband has died. Would that be more bearable? Or is it more bearable to be loved by him and not touched—and for how long? Many friends are in sexless marriages, too. Three of four couples who attended our wedding have split; the singles remain that way. It seems we’re all holding our breath. In my head, I do scary math. Forty-eight Forty-six is an early age to stop having sex forever. I’m fighting to breathe—to respire, to inspire—to invoke, to invite something magical in side myself and be transformed but not changed irrevocably by it. [viii]

Desperation drives the fool to whisper wishes wantonly to the wind, her words poisoned with longing. We rue what we reap from imprecise, sputtered language. Yet we wish anyway.

drought(n.) ~ Old English drugaþdrugoþ“continuous dry weather injurious to vegetation,” from Proto-Germanic *drugothaz, from Germanic root *dreug- “dry” with *-itho. See dry-th

See dry meaning barren, meaning showing no emotion, meaning without pleasantry; caustic, sarcastic; see uninteresting, tedious, see free from sweetness or fruity flavour, see prohibitionist. Which is to say, a person who doesn’t tipple, who wants for sex, whose seriousness carries the day—dry as desert, dry as cynic, dry as bone, dry as prose—dry as in humorless dinner conversation, dry as gin, dry as a man turned down, dry as in overcooked pork, dry as in she’s dried up, dry as in overdone.

In the final days of the residency, I see the heaving: a pregnant mound bulging beneath the moss-blanketed earth. A nuanced ballooning one perceives only if she has fingered the ground’s intimacies. Through close daily contact she becomes keen enough to see Tsing’s subtle entanglements. 

Habitual relationships with place are like cataracts over the eyes, scrimming the distinctive features that initially captivated us. Experience evolves into a general gauzy knowing that we take for granted. It’s a survival technique. We can’t be on high alert all the time. Our predator brains, ever hunting for opportunities and threats, must occasionally rest. To survive, we must take things for granted, we must gloss, must refrain from noticing every goddamned thing or risk burnout. Ironically, this baseline numbness affords keenness to change. After one loses the disillusionment of thrill, her senses are thereby renewed. Then she can perceive the strange—the new. 

I can’t say when I felt less fearful hiking alone on the Bearberry. When I hummed to amuse myself rather than sung to keep predators at bay. When I focused more on the breath than on flights of fancy. When I released my shadow-daimons, the handsome fantasy companions I keep by my side for conversation. In these daydreams, monsters resembling demigorgons from Stranger Things threaten humanity. The brawny men flee in terror when the demon-throng stampedes over the rocky rise, but I remain—I am the Hero. In the centre of a clearing I kneel, throw back my head, holler to the heavens. I fight the monsters without punching or shooting, without a vile thing touching me—no spells, no weapons—just a pulse of screaming light from my throat that makes their skulls explode. The demigorgons collapse in a blood-and-bile-drenched heap of quivering corpses. My power source: the Moon in my mouth, a bright spinning wheel that hovers where soft palate meets hard, the chakra centre around which whips the orbit of ephemeral existence.

Childish, isn’t it, to believe one can conquer death without getting her hands dirty. Which is to say: a fantasy, a role-player game. A video girl.

Mushrooms fruit for a mere few weeks. It takes until age forty for matsutake to contain enough concentrated nutrients to fruit—to heave horny hillocks into the sky—puh-powee!  Matsutake inspires hope that I, too, have a fruitful future ahead, that I might yet bloom in surprising ways. 

At forty-eight, my fruit-bearing window is closing, my animal body hunger’s temporary harbour. Beneath my skin, I sense a subtle heaving, a breathing—a disturbance. Some days I pass through the world unseen, a ghost-animal munching mushrooms in the dark: a coyote, a bear. A beached whale. The tide wells in my lungs, in and out. Could this pause from sex be a baseline for future contaminations? Midlife—not a bosco but an apex (a downhill slide?), a bella vista—a gestalt: the distance between divine transcendence and limited human apprehension? [ix]

I’m starting to get it: precarity is unavoidable. 

The sticky red juice drips in spatters from my chin.

On the last day of the residency, I put my novel to bed. My cockeyed optimism clouds the future: I can’t imagine that, ten months later, I still won’t have an agent, that I’ll be no closer to publishing my book after sixty-five submissions. That five years of writing and revising will turn out to be a learning experience. That, by August, I’ll rue the counsel I buoy my students with: Don’t give up! Rejection is part of the process!

But we’re not there yet. It’s October, and I’m triumphant. I cross off a life-dream—Finish my first novel—from my Things to Do Before I Die list. The painter and I celebrate with a final hike through Leadbetter. In my excitement, I didn’t consider the tides. 

“I wonder how far up the meadow the water comes,” I muse at the very moment—galunk!—I step in ankle-deep brackish water tonguing the forest’s edge. 

Wool socks drenched, hiking boots soaked. 

The painter, wearing waterproof shoes, muffles a guffaw.

At that moment I can’t fathom the heart infection that will strike my husband in May, or the vitality his second near-death will peel from me. I can’t imagine plunging Draughts of Saline and Super Antibiotics into his Heart through a Syringe for six weeks, or my raw gratitude at feeling his sleeping Body next to mine after his weeklong absence in the Hospital. In the dark I lay awake, listening for his breath. I graze his leg to confirm his Body is warm, to sense a quickening. (Will I know if/when he’s dead?) I begin to understand—begin! At forty-eight!—what Carl Phillips means when he says he writes to set a wedge between himself and the unbearable. He’s not talking about loss, but joy—the swerve—toxin, tocsin, clinamen. The balancing on open palms what we desperately long to close our fingers around. [x][xi]

I can’t yet imagine how, in May, space/time will shift from forty-eight to sixteen, from Seattle to Phoenix, from husband to mother; thirty years apart, their frigid blue hospital rooms smell the same. May will deliver the turn, the volta: we are alive—temporarily—all of us. In May I will play Isis to his Osiris again, sewing my husband’s heart-wounds with moonlight for the second time. What’s left then but to lash the unbearable with my glistening pink tongue? To subtract forever from the marriage equation, to tare meaningful with fleeting, a pathetic attempt of curing mortality with poetry? 

I can’t imagine that, in September, two and a half years into our bed death, I’ll sense a subtle throbbing beneath my husband’s skin. It whispers wordless harmonies with the pulse beneath mine: beech and fir creaking secrets. Not death—?! No. Hibernation. Hope. In that shadowed moment, delight alights on my palm, opening and closing its wings. I can barely breathe. It’ll fall to powder at the slightest touch, but I’m tempted to grab it before it flies. It’s a shock to find viscous liquor surging in the ropy veins of elder vines, decay entwined with sweetness deep in the hardened canes. The two are, in fact, inseparable.

But—back to October. 

My boots can’t be un-soaked. 

There’s no guarantee of returning to Willapa—no guarantee of anything. A feeling situated on the ever-shifting invisible border between joy and sorrow, awe and despair. [xii]

“Wanna turn back?” the painter asks.

“No,” I say. “Let’s keep going.”

 

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Endnotes

[i] A mistake is a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgement, inadequate knowledge, or inattention; an accident is an unforeseen, unplanned circumstance. The difference is intention.

[ii] A chemical is a poison if it causes metabolic disfunction in organisms. A toxin is a poisonous biological chemical produced by plants, animals, or microorganisms. In common speech, poison and toxin are employed interchangeably. We humans blur boundaries until meanings and nuance collapse.

Toxic indicates the condition of a substance and the degree to which it can damage an organism or system; poisonous implies a high level of toxicity, though any substance is technically poisonous if taken in a large enough dose. Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541), the parent of modern toxicology, noted: “Dosage alone determines poisoning.”

[iii] Blue Mushrooms are rare fungi scattered throughout Albion in Fable: The Lost Chapters. Four Blue Mushrooms are required to meet the Bronze Quest of The Sick Child. Known hallucinogens, these fictitious mushrooms are said to inspire mind-altering thoughts.

[iv] coward

[v] Most versions of the Gorgon Medusa’s story omit her history: she was a gorgeous woman who was raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena after she spurned his advances. As punishment for violating the temple’s purity, Athena transformed Medusa (yawn: yes, Medusa, not Poseidon) into a scaly monster with snakes for hair and a gaze that turned men (note: never women) to stone. One could say her punishment was her protection—that is, until Athena set Perseus to fetch Medusa’s head as adornment for her shield.

[vi] Patricia Highsmith

[vii] Joy Williams

[viii] Inspiration: the act of drawing air into the lungs; also, divine influence or sacred revelation. Respirationthe movement of air or dissolved gases into and out of the lungs; a single complete act of breathing. A touch of the divine invoked and exchanged by the cells of our alveoli: breath meets blood, blood feeds brain.

[ix] Linda Gregg

[x] an alarm bell or the ringing of it.

[xi] Per Lucretius, the unpredictable swerve of atoms, the free will which living things possess.

[xii] Darran Anderson

 

Gabriela Denise Frank

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Gabriela Denise Frank is a transdisciplinary literary artist, editor, and arts educator. Her writing and visual art have appeared in BOMB Magazine, True Story, DIAGRAM, Channel Magazine, Northwest Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The author of "Pity She Didn't Stay 'Til the End" (Bottlecap Press) and the forthcoming short fiction collection "How to Not Become the Breaking (Gateway Literary Press), she serves as creative nonfiction editor and managing editor of Crab Creek Review.

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