Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2011

Fiction: The Melusine (1898) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

1.

In this blistering, midsummer month of bloatflies and thunder without so much as a drop of rain, the traveling show rolls into the great smoky burg spread out at the foot of the Chippewan Mountains. By some legerdemain unknown to the people of the city, the carnival’s prairie schooners and Bollée carriages declare its name in letters five-stories high—Othniel Z. Bracken’s Transportable Marvels—shaped from out nothing but the billowing clouds of red dust raised by those rolling broad steel and vulcanized rims. The traveling show arrives at midday, as if to spite the high white eye of the summer sun glinting off tin roofs and factory windows and the acetate-aluminum envelopes of the zeppelins moored at Arapahoe Station. “Only mad dogs and Englishmen,” as the saying goes, but apparently also this rattling, clanking hullabaloo of steam organs and barkers and pounding bass drums.

And the townspeople, confused and taken off their guard, peer from the sweltering shadows of their homes, from shop windows, from all those places where shade offers some negligible shelter from the July sky. They gaze in wonder, annoyance, or simple, speechless bafflement at this unexpected parade spilling along East Evens Avenue, led by an assortment of automaton mastodonts, living elephants and rhinoceri, and a dozen white and prancing Percherons with braided manes. There are twirling, summersaulting women on the horses’ backs, scantily clad after the fashion of Arabian harem girls, though, from the distance of only a few feet, it’s difficult to tell if these acrobats are mechanical or the real thing.

Soon, there is an impromptu assortment of street urchins and drunkards trailing alongside the parade, coming as near as they dare to wheels and stamping hooves and stomping brass feet, and clowns with gaudy faces toss candy and squibs from the wagons, delighting the ragged children and frustrating the drunks, who might have wished for just a little more. And a man in a long black duster, his face half as red as ripe cherries, stands on a wooden platform mounted precariously atop one of the schooners. He bellows a command through a shining silver speaking-trumpet, and at once a flock of clockwork doves erupt from some hidden recess to flutter and cavort beneath the merciless sun.

“A long, long way have we come!” he shouts, the trumpet magnifying his voice until it can be plainly heard even above the noise of the parade and the din clatter of the ironworks two streets over. “From the Cossack-haunted steppes of Siberia to the deadly forests of French Equatorial Africa, from the celestial palaces of the Qing Dynasty to the farthest wild shores of both polar climes, we arrive, bearing the perplexing fruits of our intrepid journeys!”

The barker pauses, taking a breath or pausing for effect or both, and from his high perch he watches the peering, upturned faces, the thousand flavors of skepticism and dismay, anticipation and surprise. The clockwork doves circle him again, then suddenly retreat into whatever cage released them a few moments before.

“Yes! It’s true!” he continues, wielding the trumpet the way, two decades earlier, before the Great Depredations, a buffalo hunter would have wielded his Spencer repeating spark rifle. “In these very wagons, the treasures of the wide, wide world, the secrets of the globe that have so entertained crowned pates and bewildered men of science and philosophy! Here, presented for each and every one among you to look upon and draw your own conclusions!”

And now, there is a hesitant smattering of applause, a handful of wolf whistles and catcalls, and the barker leans out over the railing of his platform, risking a dreadful tumble (or so it surely seems).

“And lest any there among ye lot think us mere profiteers and scalawags,” he bellows through the speaking trumpet, “unscrupulous purveyors of humbuggery or chicanery, let me please assure you otherwise! A small return, yes, yes, astonishments for a most nominal and reasonable fee, only to cover our not-inconsiderable expenses in wending our way about the fearsome world. But, by the sacred horns of Moses, not one copper more!” And at this, on cue, or by providence, one of the elephants splinters the already cacophonous air with a trumpeting of her own. There is laughter from the onlookers, and the tension breaks, and some of the hesitant skepticism dissolves. The barker grins his wide grin, knowing half the battle’s as good as won (and making a mental note to reward that particular elephant later on), and he sets the silver megaphone against his lips again.

“For, indeed, it is to the betterment and general erudition of all mankind—even savages in their mud huts and wigwams, that the men and women of the Othniel Z. Bracken’s Transportable Marvels have devoted themselves!” And though, at this point, he knows it’s unnecessary, the barker adds the customary, “Come one! Come all! Come and see! Come and be astounded!” Then the agreeable elephant raises her trunk and lets out a blast that would have shamed even the troops of Jehoshuah, in his blaring seven-day march about the walls of ill-fated Jericho. The animal’s cry echoes down the slatternly, riveted canyon of thoroughfares and alleyways. Below the chandeliered ceiling of the Grand Chagrin, the dancers and sporting girls stop flirting and fanning themselves. In basements and backrooms, rapscallions and reprobates pause at their games of crapaud and poker, at the cutting of purse strings and throats. The air thrums and crackles, transformed, as if by the sizzling tendrils of an electrical storm. The choking, obscuring cloud of red dust streams out behind the wagons and automobiles.

And the barker, almost whispering through his trumpet, ends his soliloquy with a tipping of his tall black top hat, a bow, and, finally, a single, pregnant word—“Miracles…”—and the show rolls on, triumphant, through the smoky, industrious city.

2.

At the southernmost edge of the city, just before the crooked, tumbledown shacks of Collier’s Row, in the lee of the towering gob piles stripped of their lustrous anthracitic treasures, the carnival has unfolded across the dusty, disused cavalry training grounds. Like an inconceivable bird fashioned all of canvas and tent poles, the show has spread itself wide, unfurling beneath the vasty western sky. And by dusk, there are what seems veritable miles of Chinese lanterns and gas lamps and Edison carbon-filament bulbs strung gaily, gaudily here and yon. You might think, spying down upon the city from the windy crevice of Genesse Pass or Kittredge Point, that all the stars of Heaven had been lured down to Earth, to light these delirious festivities. All those who can have come, and the air is filled with laughter and conversation, and it smells of sawdust and confections, incense and the exotic dung of at least a hundred species of animals.

Here are aisle after aisle of flapping, painted broadsides depicting the most fearsome and obscene and unlikely beings. And a gigantic, revolving iron wheel crafted by G.W.G. Ferris & Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and just one thin Liberty dime buys a ten-minute ride in its rocking, colorful gondolas. There’s a musical carousel fitted with all manner of saddled clockwork beasts—horses, humped camels, giraffes, a pair of snarling iguanodons, roaring lions, and even an ostrich. All around the cavalry grounds, there are fire-eaters and fakirs, tattooed women and a legion of wind-up Roman Praetorians, unicyclists and jugglers and a trio of sword-swallowing Malays not content with swords, but, contrarily, busy swallowing Nantucket harpoons and living rattlesnakes (headfirst, naturally). And rising lofty and somehow yet more unreal above all this orchestrated madness and phantasmagoria, stands the great main tent, a red, white, and blue octagon fringed with golden tassels and the twinkle of ten thousand artificial fireflies.

And her name is Cala—Cala Monroe Weatherall—this tall, freckled, straw-haired woman who has come alone to answer the barker’s battle cry, and, also, a more urgent, secret cry. All day, every day but Sundays, she sees to the production of valves at Jackson-Merritt Manufacturing, steel valves designed and tooled to the most exacting specifications for such august clients as the Colorado and Northern Kansas Railway, the new Colorado Central Railroad, and the Front Range and West Coast divisions of the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Luftschiffahrt. Clea Weatherall is a learned woman of industry and science, a rationalist and an engineer with a hard-earned diploma on her office wall, received a decade earlier from the Missouri School of Mines and Metalliferous Arts. Unmarried and generally disinterested in such flitting, womanly pursuits as matrimony and men, hers is a life of math and precision, of slide rules and difference engines, logarithms and trigonometric functions. She does her small (and well-paid) part to keep the trains running and the zeppelins aloft, and she sees no shame or sin in the pride she feels at her modest accomplishments in an arena still dominated by men.

But, this night is not any usual night for Miss Cala Weatherall, who rarely spares even the strayest thought for such oddities and amusements as those offered up by Othniel Z. Bracken’s Transportable Marvels. Any other night, if asked, she might have laughed or snorted and dismissed the whole, seedy affair as only so much brummagem, silly distractions best left to those without the responsibilities she shoulders every single day, excepting Sundays (and even then, she usually works from her room at Jane Smithson’s boarding house on the lower end of Downing Street). Last night, however, and for each of the three proceeding nights, she’s had a dream, a dream so vivid and bizarre that she might almost name it a nightmare. But Cala doesn’t have nightmares, and, for that matter, she only rarely ever remembers her dreams upon waking. But this dream, this dream spoke of the imminent coming of a traveling show, and of many, many other things, besides, and though she sets no store in the fashionable delusions of spiritualism, mysticism, and theosophy promulgated by the likes of Madame Helena Blavatsky and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—charlatans and liars and fools, every one—she has had this dream, this dream that was almost a nightmare, if there had not been such beauty and longing to it. And so, uneasy and reluctant, embarrassed at herself, she has come to the old cavalry training grounds, to the traveling show, to face this rutting coincidence and be done with it, once and for always.

So, this is how she finds herself outside the sideshow tent, heavy canvas painted in a garish riot of blues and greens, whites and grays, as though some impossible Artesian well leading all the way to the sea has sprung up, suddenly, from this very spot. Above the entrance is a wooden placard that reads, Poseidon’s Abyss Revealed! In her dream, there was this selfsame tent, or one near enough to raise goose bumps on her arms. And there was a placard, too, though she is not able to recollect the lettering she saw there. She pays her fifteen cents to the black man outside the tent flap—the “talker” in his scuffed-up bowler and red suspenders, busy enticing the crowd with promises of the mysteries that lie within, the arcanum arcanorum of the Seven Seas and any number of lakes, fjords, fens, wells, bogs, rivers, and the most desolate of swamps. Another man pushes open the flap for her, and a stream of cool air rushes out into the muggy summer night. Air so cold and damp it seems to seep forth and wrap itself about her, air that smells of low-tide along an Oregonian shore or icy slime dredged from the supposedly lifeless bottom of the Atlantic.

“Good evening, Miss,” the second man—an Oriental—says, beckoning her inside. And then he winks and adds in a whisper, “She’ll be glad to see you’ve come.”

Cala Weatherall almost turns back then, at the man’s peculiar confidence and, too, at the memory of that chill, dank smell from her dream. But now there’s someone very close behind her, pushing, hurrying her forward, some other rube who’s paid his money and is chomping at the bit to look upon whatever hoaxes and half truths the carnies keep hidden in this place.

“Please, sir,” she grumbles. “No shoving, please,” but then she’s inside the tent, and when Cala Weatherall glances over her left shoulder, the fellow’s attention has already been seized by a desiccated “Feejee mermaid,” and by the dim gaslight she can read the plaque mounted below the pathetic, shriveled thing—“Formerly of Phineas T. BARNUM’S AMERICAN MUSEUM, prior to that Grand Institution’s DESTRUCTION on the night 8 October 1871, a CASUALTY of the GREAT CHICAGO and PESHTIGO FIRESTORM, following this Earth’s COLLISION with parts of the Comet BIELA.” And for a moment, Cala Weatherall forgets the dream and her trepidations, and she almost steps over to explain to the man that this purported “mermaid” is no more than the upper portion of a monkey sewn onto the rear portions of a fish, the seams concealed, no doubt, with putty or papier-mâché. And, while she’s at it, also inform him that no reputable scientist anywhere accepts that the terrible fires in Chicago and Peshtigo were in any way connected, one to the other, much less the result of a collision with any ethereal object.

But then she hears a loud splash, and turning about, squinting into the gloom of the tent, through murk interrupted only by the unsteady light of the gas jets, her eyes fall upon a tremendous, roughly rectilinear slab of white marble. Stepping nearer, she sees that its surface is inscribed with all manner of pictogrammes or hieroglyphics. This time, the accompanying plaque reads, “IRREFUTABLE PROOF of the ANCIENT & SUBMERGED realm of LOST LEMURIA, dredged by BRAVE SEAMEN off the coast of PERU, from a depth of more than 2100 FATHOMS!” Cala shakes her head ruefully, noting that the glyphs are a nonsensical hodge-podge, vaguely resembling something Egyptian, and that the chisel marks appear quite fresh. There is certainly no evidence that this stone was ever long subjected to the rigors of the sea’s abyssopelagic plains or hadopelgaic trenches. She laughs to herself and at herself, laughing to have paid good, hard-earned coin and to have come this far, suckered in with all the others. The anxiety borne of her dreams and the coincidence of the traveling show’s arrival and the existence of this sideshow tent begin to release their hold upon her, and she laughs again, louder than before, and shakes her head at the blatant forgery.

“I should ask for a refund of my money,” she mutters. Then, rather more loudly, so that anyone else nearby might hear, she says, “You should all ask for your money back.” And, to herself, Cala adds, “I should notify the law, that’s what I should do.”

Increasingly embarrassed that she, even for one moment, feared her vivid dreams were anything more tangible than any dream, or the arrival of the carnival any more than a coincidence, she walks past a number of other “exhibits” arranged beneath the tent. There is a fossilized whale vertebra, almost big as a pickle barrel, of the sort long known to anatomists and students of bygone eras as Basilosaurus cetoidesi, generally found by cotton farmers while plowing their fields in Alabama and Mississippi. Here, though, the backbone is claimed to have come from the GREAT AMERICAN SEA SERPENT “HYDRARCHOS,” sighted in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1817, and, earlier, in the cold waters off Cape Ann in 1639. Farther along, past the vertebra and any number of peculiar fishes and invertebrata floating in corked jars of formaldehyde, and protected inside a locked display case, is something like a golden tiara or crown, tall towards the front, and with a very pronounced and curiously irregular periphery, as if designed for a freakishly elliptical skull. Adorned with an assortment of geometrical and marine designs, the tiara’s plaque reports that it was recovered from a now-extinct cannibal tribe on some undisclosed location in “the South Seas.” And all this time, there are other men and women (though mostly men), and occasionally she speaks to one of them, explaining the more likely identity or origin of some specimen or artefact. Cala Weatherall has never thought that a lack of education or of a well-nurtured intellect should be an excuse for gullibility. From time to time, her whispered explanations (whispered, for several people have dared to shush her) are interrupted by sudden splashing sounds, like water sloshing about in a container of some sort, or the tail of an otter or beaver slapping the surface of a pond. And that sound is something else from her four-times recurrent dream, the dream which was emphatically not a nightmare, and even as it seems to draw her forward through the ill-lit maze of this rough and mismatched collection, she pushes her conscious awareness of the sound away, away and down.

“If they are all fakes,” one man asks her, “why hasn’t someone put a stop to this?”

“Likely as not, Sir,” she replies, ignoring another of the sudden swashing noises, “whoever runs this racket paid off the relevant authorities well ahead of time, to prevent just such an interruption of commerce.”

The man furrows his brow and cocks one bushy brown eyebrow, at least appearing to look shocked at what she’s just said. “My word, woman,” he scowls. “We elect these people. Our taxes pay their salaries. We must surely not be quite so cynical as all that.” And then the man goes back to examining the barnacle-encrusted iron anchor supposed to have come from the Argo of Grecian myth. She patiently explained to the gentleman that the barnacles are of a genus not found anywhere in the Mediterranean, though quite common along the western coasts of Mexico, but the man only harrumphed and said something rude about women no longer knowing their proper place. Cala let it go, as she’s heard far worse in her days, and is accustomed and, to a degree, dulled to the narrow opinions of such men.

“I only thought—mistakenly, I will concede—that you’d want to know the truth of the matter,” she murmurs, and quickly steps past the Argo anchor exhibit and through yet another curtain, this one comprised of innumerable small glass beads the colour of sea foam and thunderstorms, strung along dangling lengths of silk twine. This area seems even colder than those previous sections of the labyrinth, but somewhat brighter, too, and she pauses, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the unexpected glare. The air here is markedly more dank, and smells particularly, almost overwhelmingly, briny. So strong is the odor, Cala might be standing at the very edge of the sea. Around her, the canvas walls are washed with a reflected, coruscating light, and in only a few seconds more she sees the source of both the saltwater smell and the constantly shifting rays playing across the tent’s walls. At first, squinting at and into the enormous aquarium standing before her—thick glass and a rusty cast-iron framework, a chugging pump to keep the water oxygenated and filtered of detritus—she expects to see nothing more remarkable than a pair of trained seals or, possibly instead, some grim variety of devilfish or giant squid to appall and startle these people who have never known the ocean and its inhabitants.

But the tank does not contain trained seals.

Nor an octopus or squid.

And for a time, Cala stands quite still, staring, disbelieving the evidence of her own eyes, willing herself not to draw any obvious conclusions or connections with the dreams, for too frequently are we deceived by that which seems so perfectly obvious to our senses. The thing in the tank, she reasons, must certainly be an automaton, an admirably cunning clockwork, impermeable to moisture, but not so unlike the mastodonts and doves in the afternoon’s parade along East Evens Avenue. The acquisition of such a device is clearly not beyond the resources of the carnival, and if it is only mechanical, then there remains but the niggling issue of coincidence to address. Despite her pounding heart and the sweat slicking her palms and upper lip, she is very near to dismissing it, this absurd fairy-tale chimera peering back at her from the aquarium, its head and shoulders held above the slopping surface, the rest coiled below the waterline. But then it opens its mouth and speaks, and that voice is so exquisite, and so familiar, that Cala Weatherall believes that she might well scream, and never mind who would hear or what they would think.

“So long, girl,” the thing in the tank sighs, its voice rolling, tumbling, rushing through the tent like breakers before an incoming tide. “So very, very long have I waited for this night, hauled across time and these death-dry lands, through arid wilderness and the smoldering, unseeing cities of men.”

“No,” Cala says, but the word is not meant as a response, only as a personal statement of her disbelief, spoken aloud for her own benefit. There is still no reason, beyond the coincidence of her recurring dream, to suppose the thing in the tank is not a hoax, and that its voice does not originate, for instance, from a woman sequestered somewhere behind the tank. She speaks into a small brass horn attached to a length of tubing, and her voice emerges from the mechanized rubber lips of the melusine.

“They said that you would be the Skeptic,” the thing responds, not knowing that Cala was not speaking to it (for what sane woman talks to an automaton).

“They,” Cala says, repeating what the thing has said, though still not speaking to it.

“My dear sisters,” it replies, “Palatyne and Melior. They each, in turn, warned that, in the end, all my searching would yield on so much dubiety and fleer.”

“I have seen many a clever puppet show,” Cala says, and this time she realizes that she is answering the thing in the tank. “I did not always see the strings or the puppeteers, but I never doubted the performers were only marionettes.”

“You do not strike me as the sort to attend a puppet show,” the melusine replies. “Which is a shame, I think.”

Cala Weatherall glances uneasily back the way she’s come, and there’s the curtain of glass beads, still swaying slightly, softly clicking and clacking against each other. She looks back at the aquarium tank, still clinging as ferociously to her disbelief as any caterwauling Baptist minister ever clung to his King James Bible. The thing in the tank has the appearance of a very pale and beautiful woman from the hips up. Its skin has a disquieting iridescent quality, almost opalescent in this light. Its perfectly wrought hands have no nails, but end in sharp, recurved, and chitinous claws at the tip of each long finger, and its eyes are the yellow of the yolk from a chicken’s egg. Its small breasts are shamelessly bare, though Cala notes that it has no visible nipples, and so she wonders, absently, at the utility of breasts so ill-equipped for nursing. A sculptor’s fancy or accidental imperfection, and likely nothing more, and she dares to take one step nearer, seeking some other flaw in the design. The melusine’s long straight hair hangs in sodden strands about its mother-of-pearl shoulders, black as a freshly-exposed vein of coal. Only, on closer inspection, there are what appear to be dozens of fleshy tendrils writhing within those sable tresses, no bigger around than a lead pencil. Its sharp teeth flash when it mimics speech, and they are almost identical to those of certain lamniform sharks known to ichthyologists as sand tigers, row upon row anchored in gums the bruised colour of ripening elderberries.

“I know your lonely nights, Cala,” the melusine tells her. “I have watched you, at your window, envying the couples passing by…”

“Enough,” Cala replies angrily, for there are limits to what any woman must endure, even in well-meaning jest, and this jest has long since transcended the boundaries of propriety. “I do not know how you people learned my name,” she says, not speaking to the thing in the tank, but to whatever unseen person speaks its lines. “Though I doubt it was so very difficult. You must have numerous marks each time you enter a new town—”

“And we know your dreams?” the melusine asks, and its scaly, serpentine tail coils and uncoils beneath that human torso. It cocks its head to one side, waiting for an answer, and the small flukes at the end of its tail slap the surface of the water. “Pray thee, tell how it is we might accomplish that feat?”

For the span of several heartbeats, Cala does not reply, transfixed not only by the power of the thing’s question, but by the rhythmic, almost hypnotic, smack of those silvery green flukes. Yes, she thinks. Hypnosis, mesmerism, autosuggestion, these must be part of the deception. Turning my own mind against me to achieve this effect.

“Yes,” the melusine says. “Hypnosis, mesmerism, autosuggestion, these must be part of the deception. Turning my own mind against me to achieve this effect.”

Cala Weatherall gasps, and takes another step towards the tank. “It cannot be,” she says.

“Why?” asks the thing in the tank. “Because you have not been taught that it is so? I have not come so far, across gulfs of time and space, merely to deceive a lonely, dissatisfied woman. What bitter daemon has taken hold of the world of men that it no longer trusts its own eyes and its own ears?”

“It is an enlightened age,” Cala says, but her voice is hardly audible now, a half whisper as she steps still nearer to the aquarium tank. “Not an age of ignorance and superstition. Not…an age of sirens and mermaids and sea monsters.”

“And neither is it an age in which a woman who is brilliant and enterprising, but whose heart does not seek a man, can hope for the balm of love or even of a soul mate’s companionship? Did you also sell your heart, Cala Weatherall, when you sold off your imagination? Is there remaining now no way ever that I may comfort thee?”

“It simply is not possible,” Cala whispers, meaning only the existence of this creature, and not to answer its question. And she realizes, if only distantly, that she has begun to weep, and whether from sympathy or mockery, the melusine has begun to weep as well.

“You must be brilliant, indeed, if your mind contains a catalog of all those things possible, and all those things that are not.”

“They were dreams. Only dreams. I have never even dared to hope.”

“A mighty daemon, indeed, that it leads a woman to fear even the meager solace of hope.”

And now Cala is standing so near the tank that she might easily extend her hand to reach out and touch the melusine’s strange, restless hair and pearly skin. And she sees, for the first time, a small and tarnished brass plaque bolted to the tank, which reads simply Le Fontaine de Soif.

“It is so, is it not?” the melusine asks, seeing that Cala’s read the plaque on the aquarium. “You are so terribly thirsty, like a woman lost and wandering in an endless desert…” And then the creature ventures the faintest of smiles, and one glistening arm slides out over the rim on the tank towards her.

“It is so,” Cala confesses to the beast. “I am so alone. I am so lost, so terribly alone. And you…you are more beautiful times ten than anything I have ever looked upon with waking eyes.” She starts to take the melusine’s hand, recalling again details of her vivid dreams—the wordless embraces in lightless, submerged halls formed of coral and the carved ribs of leviathans. Already, she knows the taste of the melusine’s thin pink lips, the feel of those vicious teeth upon her skin, the unspeakable pleasure of the faerie’s mouth and hands and those appendages for which men have not ever devised names upon her and probing deeply within her.

“It is such a small thing, belief,” the melusine tells her. “It is no more than taking my hand.”

And then, in the last fraction of an instant before Cala does accept that proffered hand, there is a violent hissing, and a loud pop, and all at once the smell of ozone and hot metal, of shattered gears and melting polymers, fills the air inside the tent, pushing back the salty, primordial smells of the ocean and of birth and death and love. The thing in the tank shudders and then goes limp, and steam begins to rise from the water in the aquarium. Somewhere nearby, she hears a woman, a woman with a voice like the melusine’s, cursing, and a man begins to shout. Cala lets her arm drop to her side, and her eye lingers only a few seconds longer on the ruined automaton, before she turns and silently makes her way out of the tent and back out into the muggy summer night and the hullabaloo of Othniel Z. Bracken’s Transportable Marvels. The next day, after a few hours of fitful sleep, she will discover the jimmied lock on her dresser drawer and the missing diary wherein she recorded all her secret thoughts and desires and dreams. And there will remain unanswered questions, but she will not ever ask them. There is too much work to be done, a job that fifty men, fifty men easy, would be happy to take if she were to fail. There are calculations to make and orders to be filled, and if in the empty stretches of her nights, she sometimes finds herself far below the churning surface of the sea, beloved and belonging in those sunken corridors, these are things she keeps forever to herself and never again commits to the fickle confidences of ink and paper.

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