An Unfinished Story About Eagles

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Once upon a time I lived in Down East Maine. During the day I taught high school on Mount Desert Island, long a popular destination for tycoons like the Rockefellers and Fords, writers, painters, movie stars, and two and a half million other visitors a year. Dressed in a suit with matching tie and pocket-handkerchief, I tried to impart my love of English and American literature to children of lobster fisherman, motel keepers, artists, owners of souvenir shops, and scientists from the Jackson Genetics Research Laboratory. When school ended, I left the dazzling views of Penobscot Bay and drove ten miles inland to Ellsworth, along the High Street commercial district of big box stores and fast food franchises and up the hill to my house in a development built on old swampland and my four-year old daughter whom I loved, and a wife from whom I was growing more and more distant.

To hear Laurie’s “Hi, Daddy!”—to see her running into the kitchen to meet me, her blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, the overbite that I’d bequeathed her and that I knew would soon finance some orthodontist’s safari in Kenya, momentarily lifted the weight pressing on my shoulders since I left school. But when my wife met me with “Did you stop at the store like I told you to? I didn’t think so,” heaviness fell like a slab of granite.

What kept my life chugging through the choppy channel between beauty and ugliness, love and alienation, were the weekends, which we spent on “the Point,” where my wife’s parents had a cottage. I loved it there. The house of weathered shingles sat on a grassy bank overlooking Gouldsboro Bay, one of Maine’s more secluded coastal indentations. Two islands separated the bay from the Atlantic Ocean and there were mornings when the rising sun over the water cast them in ethereal light that said, Yes, Virginia, there is a god.

In those days, my religion was literature, and I worshipped at the altar of the Romantic poets and New England Transcendentalists. To the locals whose calloused hands had built the houses huddled on the shore, the Point was where a man fished and hunted and tipped spruce trees for Christmas wreathes, but to me it was a spiritual, even mystical place, where I could adore a mostly unspoiled Nature. Oh, I piled brush with my father-in-law, helped him put plastic around the house’s foundation before snow flew, painted the front deck for him. I put in a garden across the road. But what I loved was wandering the woods—ten square miles of spruce, birch, and maple trees, bounded on three sides by roads and on the fourth side by West Bay, which juts from Gouldsboro Bay like the claw from a lobster. Even in the summer when I should have been busy with the garden, I might drop my hoe and leave my peas or potatoes to take off down the path that ran from the end of the cucumber bed through a spruce forest and up to a logging road, where I could turn right through birch trees past an abandoned cabin that had once belonged to the county’s first hippie, or stay straight and end up behind Pinkham’s Garage on Route One, or go left and explore the shores of West Bay.

Summer, fall, winter, spring—the season made no difference. The pungent smell of autumn leaves, the anthems sung by a June breeze through the spruce trees, the caress of the sun or the rain or the snow on my face called to something inside me, although at the time I couldn’t have told you what that something was, except it had to do with a vague concept I called God.

Unlike my Transcendentalist idols, however, I made no close observations of the natural world. I spent a lot of time on my walks lost—either in daydreams about travel or writing fame or sex, or just flat-out lost. I often found myself in a strange place with no idea how I’d gotten there. Seeing an animal was a matter of luck, of jumping a deer now and then or catching a glimpse of a rabbit scampering across the snow.

Perhaps because I used to gaze up at the sky, however, I did sometimes catch a glimpse of two bald eagles that occasionally flew over Gouldsboro Bay. In the 1970’s, eagles were classified as an endangered species: because of pesticides and other pollutants, only thirty breeding pairs survived in the state. So just to see an eagle was exciting. But for me, the feeling I had when I saw them went deeper. No other bird flew so easily or so high—their shapes like tiny crosses wheeling around the heavens. Although I hadn’t set foot in a church in years, just the sight of the eagles filled me with what I thought of as religious awe.

As my marriage sank further beneath swells of bickering and troughs of silent condemnation, these walks in the woods became a life raft. When Laurie grew a little older, taking her with me became a way for the two of us to spend time alone together. I savored her wonder at the violets growing beside the path, loved the excitement in her eyes when she saw a small clearing filled with monarch butterflies. But since she was the only grandchild and all the great aunts and cousins wanted to see her, my weekend walks remained largely solitary. Even so, being in the outdoors provided me with both an escape from the rest of the week and a call to another life—Wordsworth’s “intimations of immortality,” free of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation.”

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One day—I remember the grass in the middle of the road as yellow, so it must have been in autumn or late summer—I followed the logging road west, past some old cellar holes and gnarled apple trees until I saw West Bay in front of me, high tide twinkling in the sun. I turned right and re-entered the woods, up a faint path that ran along a bluff overlooking the bay. This part of the forest was unlike any place else—older, darker, deeper somehow. Spruce trees covered with green moss closed off the sky, which kept the ground beneath them free of bushes and other undergrowth. Even on the driest of days, the air here hung moist and salty. Several inches of brown needles covering the bluff made the path slippery. With the bay to my left, a hill of granite boulders rose to my right from which juniper bushes and reindeer moss grew in profusion around fallen tree trunks.

One could imagine goblins or elves popping out of the rocks, and I once envisioned this setting for a children’s book I thought I might write someday. Laurie and her best friend Sharon, who lived next door to us in the housing development, inspired the main characters. The girls were the same age, the same size, and both wore their hair short, with straight bangs across their foreheads; but while Laurie was fair-skinned and blond, Sharon was dark-complexioned, with the blackest hair I think I’ve ever seen. Cuddled together on the patio settee, they looked like Yin and Yang.

My story told of Melilia and Gotha, two little girls, one with blond hair and one with black hair, and began just after some catastrophe had befallen the world. Sometimes I envisioned a nuclear war, other times that the earth had been bombarded by asteroids, and still other times that creatures from outer space were stealing children for slaves. In the only part of the story that was ever clear to me, Melilia and Gotha journey along this stretch of the bay, following the instructions of Melilia’s dying parents, who tell her if she can get to the islands at the edge of Gouldsboro Bay, she will find a celestial kingdom and safety. As Melilia and Gotha struggle over the rocky bluffs, they are set upon by side-hill badgers, so named because the legs on one side of their bodies are longer than those on the other side, which allow them to move quickly around the piles of rocks, the males moving clockwise and the females counter-clockwise. The side-hill badgers are odious and ferocious creatures and Melilia and Gotha might have been captured and eaten had it not been for a turtle wearing a tie and matching pocket handkerchief who barricades the girls behind his shell until the badgers go back to their caves.

It’s possible that on this particular day I was thinking about Melilia and Gotha. I don’t remember. I do remember stopping at the top of a bluff and turning to walk under a canopy of spruce trees toward the bay to get a better view of the water. I stood in cool dark shadow under a huge spruce and gazed across the glittering bay, which seemed that much brighter for my having spent the last half hour or so in the shade. I heard a muffled noise—almost a thud—that seemed both faint and powerful at the same time. The air around me shifted perceptively, and then part of the shadow over me moved.

Twenty feet above my head, dark wings extended to over six feet across, the interlocking feathers a kaleidoscopic pattern of browns. Tapered wingtips separated and lengthened like sepia colored knives. A white tail fanned, lifted. One flap of wings sent the bird away from the trees, its legs down, curved talons extended. As it arced, I beheld a massive white head, a yellow hook of a beak, and one black eye under a furrowed brow. Then the eagle caught a thermal of wind and soared into the sky, and slowly began to circle the bay.

I felt numb or dumb for a moment—Gee, wasn’t that an eagle that just flew off over my head?—followed by an excitement that was a mix of joy and awe —God, that was an eagle that just flew off over my head! My legs trembled as I stood on the embankment and watched the bird become a tiny cross in a royal blue sky. Even after the eagle vanished over the islands at the end of Gouldsboro Bay, my heart kept up its tattoo. A small waterspout churned across the bay, raising white caps. Seaweed undulated below me. The world seemed to be dancing and I wanted to dance with it. Or at least tell somebody about what I’d just experienced.

But as I walked down the driveway to camp, my wife and Laurie and my father-in-law stood by the outside faucet of the house washing paintbrushes. “Where have you been?” my wife said in that tone that made me feel about nine years old. “I thought you were just going up to the garden for a minute.”

“I went for a walk in the woods. I saw an eagle. Close up. You should have seen it.”

“That’s nice. I’d rather you stayed here and helped us paint the garage. Now we’ll have to finish it next week. Wash your hands. It’s almost time for supper.”

“Daddy, Daddy!” my eight-year old daughter pulled at my arm. “Come see the part of the garage I painted.”

My father-in-law shrugged. “I wish I felt I could spend an afternoon traipsing around the woods. Want a drink before supper?”

I looked once more to the sky, but all I saw were some slate-colored clouds hanging over leaden water.

For the next few years, I returned periodically to the deep woods of West Bay in hopes of seeing the eagle again, but other than occasionally spotting it and its mate high in the sky, I never did. As my life turned grayer, the memory of my moment with the eagle grew more golden.

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As an apostle of literature, I used to teach my students “Freytag’s Pyramid:

Climax

Rising Action                          Falling Action

Inciting Force                                                         Resolution

Exposition                                                                                      Denouement

 

In other words, a story begins when a force of some kind sends the main character on a journey towards a climax, a turning point that redirects the action toward a resolution of the protagonist’s conflict. A few years later—after I’d fallen in love with a woman I’d met at a conference of English teachers and walked out of my marriage and the house in the development and my teaching job—I determined that standing under the eagle’s wings had been the climactic moment in the story of my life. I’d experienced something special that afternoon on West Bay, something I couldn’t articulate, and since I also couldn’t articulate my desire to escape the confines of my cheerless life, I tied eagle and yearning together. Throw in my devotion to the Romantic poets—Shelley with his skylark, Keats with his nightingale, Bryant with his waterfowl—and it was easy to decide that this eagle symbolized the moment my poetic soul took flight.

My second wedding took place on brown and gray rocks by the shore of Casco Bay—the voice of an Episcopal priest rising over the sound of lapping green waves as he led Mary Lee and me through the marriage ceremony from The Book of Common Prayer. I stood with my new wife, smelled salt and seaweed and rebirth, watched three white and black ducks float on the water in front of two gently rocking lobster boats, and understood why, in Genesis when God looked at all He had created, He thought it “very good.”

My new wife, her son Micah, and I moved to southern Maine, where I began a new teaching job. I threw away all my ties and pocket-handkerchiefs, dressed in denim shirts, and let my beard grow until I looked like a member of the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Mary Lee was a practicing Christian and after I started attending Saint Paul’s Church, I fell in love with the language of the Episcopal liturgy. On Sundays, when someone read from the Psalms—“and your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”— or Exodus—“how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”—or Isaiah—“they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary …”— I remembered how the eagle had turned my life around, rescued it from frustration and sterility.

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Re-enter Melilia and Gotha: Laurie and Sharon. About the time they were ten, Sharon moved away. The girls had found other friends by then, so the move wasn’t a catastrophic rending of a friendship. I might never have thought of Laurie’s friend again, except that five years later, I read that she’d been murdered, stabbed in the back some fifteen times. Police arrested a thirty-one year old patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, who over the last ten years had attacked three different women with knives, but who, for some reason, had been given court-authorized permission to leave the AMHI campus unsupervised for several hours a day. That night, my daughter called me in tears. “I’ve never know anyone my age who died.” For a moment or two I wondered about why bad things happen to good people, thought about Sharon’s parents, John and Christina, who’d once invited Martha and me over for a drink and how hard Sharon’s death must be for them. The next night, however, Laurie had discovered Bruce Springsteen, I was wondering if she’d like to see Back to the Future when she next came down to visit, and I don’t think we ever talked about Sharon again.

Three years later, a routine biopsy of a cyst on the back of Laurie’s head revealed a malignant tumor at the base of her brain. For the next nine months, my spirits seesawed in a haze of doctors’ visits and trips back to Ellsworth. Surgery removed the tumor two weeks before Laurie’s high school graduation, where she bought a red prom dress, carefully combed her hair over the shaved area, and attended an all night party. A week after graduating, she began radiation and chemotherapy. She lost her hair, but the tumor did not, as doctors feared, grow back. Our hopes rose. Laurie applied to Portland Art School near where Mary Lee and I lived. In August, she tie-dyed a new bandanna for her head and drove from our house with a friend to a Grateful Dead concert. On their way home, local police stopped them at 2:00 a.m. for going through town ten miles over the speed limit. We laughed.

A week before art classes started, Laurie was walking along a beach with her mother when her leg buckled. The cancer had moved down her spine to her pelvis. She postponed school until January and began physical therapy at home while designing menus and drawing placemats for a new restaurant in Ellsworth. In October, the pain in her leg grew so severe she went into the hospital. I took a leave of absence from teaching and moved to a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital in Bangor. In November, her oncologist prescribed a new regimen of chemotherapy. Two weeks later, he discontinued it after Laurie’s throat began to look, in his words, like “raw hamburger.” In December, my daughter slipped into a coma. Two days before Christmas, 1988, she died.

I spent the next few years shut away in my den, drinking myself to sleep. I raged at colleagues who tried to tell me they understood my grief because a grandparent or an uncle had died, wanting to ask them if they had any idea what it was like to wipe mucus from their child’s mouth after she’d stopped breathing. I worried about the students I liked for fear that they, too, might die, and silently cursed the lazy or the mouthy students for being alive when my own daughter was dead. I avoided my family who wanted to reminisce about Laurie’s first Christmas or a piano recital. I dismissed Mary Lee’s concerns for Micah’s grief with “He’s alive, isn’t he?” I hated myself for causing my daughter’s cancer, either by leaving her mother for another woman or not leaving her mother sooner. Most of all, I was angry at God. Laurie never smoked, didn’t drink, didn’t even eat meat let alone junk food. Up until the diagnosis, she’d always been healthy. Either she was a statistical accident—a one in a million casualty, like being struck by lightning—or she’d fallen prey to the malevolent creator of a malignant world. I decided it was the latter.

The Romantic poets became sentimental egomaniacs. Give me Shakespeare’s King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods. They kill us for their sport.” I became obsessed with finding evidence of a sadistic god’s unjust hand. I went to the library and found that my child had been one of 128,000 young people between the ages of 15-24 to die in the United States in 1988 of cancer—too many to be accidental. I combed newspapers for “acts of God”— the San Francisco Bay earthquake, Hurricane Hugo, the crash of United Flight 232 that killed one of my former students from Mount Desert Island—mass murders, especially of young people in schools: Stockton Elementary School and Lindhurst High in California, the University of Iowa. I went back to the library to read about Laurie’s friend Sharon, who had been one of 4,772 young people in this country to die in 1985 of violent crime. A state trooper found her body in an arboretum close to her home four hours after her parents had reported her missing. She went there, her father said, to go bird watching.

Bird watching. Just as Laurie and I did on the Point. I thought of Sharon, leaving her suburban home, walking along a woodland path, stopping (as we had) to pick a daisy or some violets, watch a rabbit scamper into a juniper bush, listen to the trill of a cardinal. And then, from out of the woods, the man with the knife. A big man no doubt, with blind, irrational hatred in his eyes. Had she seen him, tried to run, or had he come up behind her silently while she was scanning the skies for birds: perhaps an osprey or an owl?

Or an eagle.

I could no longer walk in the woods without seething at the cruelty and the violence around me: chewed and diseased vegetation, a host of predators who kill with merciless surprise and brutality. Were the Transcendentalists blind? I could no longer remember my walks in the woods without remembering the dead birds and squirrels I’d ignored, without smelling the dead seal I’d once walked around after it had washed up on the shore of West Bay. The eagle, as I saw it during this time, was a symbol of death, like cancer or a knife-wielding mental patient. Even fourteen years after Laurie died, when I watched United Flight 175 from Boston fly into the side of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, all I could think of was that goddamned eagle. The bird had not been a turning point in my life, but rather an omen, a foreshadowing, the voice from The Revelation to John: “… I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: ‘Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth…!’”

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Yes. But. Three and a half years after 9/11, I sat in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday listening to Sarah, our Lay Reader, recount the story of how the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in wind and flame, and empowered them to speak in other languages so that the different nationalities in the crowd could understand God’s word. For liturgical Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the church, and we are supposed to celebrate it with as much joy as we do Christmas and Easter. Red draped both the lectern and the altar. Our rector Dan and my wife Mary Lee, who serves as Deacon, wore their red stoles. Three rows in front of me, ninety-four year old Margaret sported a cherry-red sweater, and behind her the Willinghams—Fred in his Harvard-crimson tie, Eleanor looking like a red bell pepper in her matching hat and pants suit.

The air, however, felt dusty and stale. The dark beams and off-white walls of the 19th Century Gothic Revival church sanctuary closed in around me. Sarah’s voice crackled over the antiquated sound system. Four weeks of Advent and four weeks of Epiphany and six weeks of Lent and seven weeks of Easter had tired me of fasting and feasting and self-reflection and confessing my sins and trying to understand concepts like incarnation and resurrection. Today I was supposed to grapple with the Holy Spirit. On my way to church this morning, May sunshine had lit up azaleas and apple blossoms. The temperature pushed 70°. I gazed around at the stained glass windows, noting that every one of them depicted Jesus teaching and healing, not in any temple or church, but out of doors. Where I wanted to be.

My eyes followed the panels of a tall stained glass window to the apex, where a white dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the Jordan River, plunged like a dive-bomber, head down with extended wings outlined in blue and backlit by a stained glass sunburst of gold. I heard once more the thud of eagle’s wings, felt again the air move, and for the first time in years, sensed some of the joy and wonder of that moment.

Looking more closely, I saw the blue outline of the dove’s wings in the stained glass window only under the wings, probably representing a shadow. I thought of the line in the Psalms, “Hide me under the shadow of your wings.” I recalled the way the shadow over me moved as the eagle flapped those powerful wings and how the air around me changed, and how the Holy Spirit is often described in terms of air, breath, and wind. Was that what I experienced through the movement of those wings? The mystics tell us that God is found in the present moment—the Now. I had been completely in the moment: not thinking about the past—my disappointment in my marriage, my life in general—not thinking about the future with its vague visions of fulfillment; alive with wonder.

The difference between what I remembered on West Bay and what I recalled in church is that thirty years earlier I’d imagined the eagle as emblematic of the transcendent; on Pentecost Sunday, I was more aware of that space between the eagle and me, filled with an intangible but nonetheless palpable connection that bound us together then and which, I realized, at some level binds us still.

As our choir stood and put as much life as middle-aged New Englanders realistically can into “Every Time I Hear the Spirit,” I wondered if instead of being the climax of my life, standing under the eagle’s wings had been the inciting force, my introduction to the workings of this Spirit, of seeing the beauty of a connection and longing for it. I thought of those Sunday nights when my first wife and I drove back from the Point to our vinyl house, funereal distance separating us like a fogbank. I recalled the night I met Mary Lee, when we talked until three in the morning about everything from snake hunting to God. Our letters to each other sometimes reached thirty pages a week. Even through those months after Laurie’s death, when I retreated into my den with a bottle of scotch, when I snapped at her for not leaving me alone and then cursed her for not being there when I needed her, when my guilt and my anger alienated the rest of my family and many of my friends, the bond between Mary Lee and me somehow never broke.

Because of her insistence that we continue attending church even when I spent the service clenching my fists at any mention of God’s love, I eventually discovered the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer, which introduced me to the beauty of silence. The rector of our church at the time recommended that Mary Lee, her son Micah, and I begin attending The Center for Grieving Children, where I found a place to share my rage. I’d recently joined the Pastoral Care Committee, and been inspired by others’ courage in the face of heartbreak. Weren’t these all manifestations of a Spirit moving through my life, forging relationships?

After church that Sunday, Mary Lee and I went for a long walk along a nearby beach, something we hadn’t done in years. I took off my shirt and felt the sun on my shoulders, inhaled the salt air, waded into the cold Maine water and went to sleep that night still feeling the surf ebb and flow around my ankles. Within the next few weeks, I stopped riding an exercise bicycle at the local Y and started taking daily walks on the trails around town. In the following years, Mary Lee and I traveled to the Arizona desert where I beheld the beauty of cactus in bloom, the mountains of Big Sur where I looked down at whipped cream clouds over the Pacific, and Scotland where the air shimmers in ethereal light. A walk I still often take after the first service at Saint Paul’s, while Mary Lee stays to serve at the second service, is on a path along the Androscoggin River, where, if I’m lucky, I can see an eagle soaring over the water, its white head flashing in the sunlight. Just a glimpse is enough to get my heart tap dancing, open my senses.

Yet on some days when I walk, a cold wind down the river sends chills up my arms. “What about Laurie’s and Sharon’s deaths?” it wails. “Have you forgotten?” Other days, the wind dies out and the black flies whine: “This memory you’re celebrating again was a connection with a predator, a scavenger and a killer.” Still other days, the bloated remains of a cormorant bobbing in some reeds near my feet sneers, “If you want to talk about shadows, weren’t you literally standing in the Shadow of Death?”

I have no answer. I may experience my daughter’s voice in the breeze, her touch on my shoulder in the sun, but I will always carry my anger at her suffering, not only the months of intense physical pain, but the emotional pain she endured: the loss of her friends, many of whom ignored her after she became sick, the loss of her dignity, the loss of her future. My faith tells me that the world is a better place because a man of died out of love for us, but I cannot believe that the world is a better place because my daughter and Sharon died.

I do believe, however, the world is also a better place because of the eagle, better because of the people who worked to save the eagle from extinction, so that as I write, over four hundred pairs of eagles live in Maine. Nature needs its predators, its scavengers, in order to stay in balance. And we need to feel that sense of awe and inspiration we get from seeing such a bird. Would I have been struck with something like Biblical reverence if it hadn’t been for the eagle’s size and fearsome presence? Hasn’t there always been a connection between fear and God?

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I’m sitting in my study, at a desk surrounded by stories alphabetically arranged in bookcases—one bookcase for novels, a bookcase for memoirs and histories, a bookcase for plays and poetry. Some of these stories begin with a prologue; others begin in medias res. Some climaxes end with an exciting battle between good and evil or the conquering of a mountaintop. Others end more subtly with a quiet epiphany, a telling gesture. Some stories wrap everything up neatly at the end with the master detective explaining who done it and why and how; some endings leave the reader in suspense.

But every one of these stories is a finished product, the result of many drafts as the writer goes over and over the material, shaping it into some version of Freytag’s pyramid, with a beginning, middle, and end. As much as I’d like to see my life that way, the past thirty years have shown me I can’t. One thing I like about religions such as Christianity is that they recognize that our lives are not finished, even in death, so that what seems like a turning point or a conclusion may in fact be just the beginning.

Looking out the window at a patch of last fall’s dead leaves lying under the budding maple tree in the back yard, I think again about Melilia and Gotha. They have now made it to the shores of West Bay. Small and young and innocent, they explore the green tide pools between the tawny brown rocks. I hear their laughter as they splash one another with water. I smell the tang of the sea breeze. Melilia shows Gotha a small fish with magenta scales swimming in a tide pool. Gotha crowns Melilia’s head with seaweed. Then they hold hands, this black-haired child and this blond little girl, and stare longingly out at the beauty and the safety of the two islands at the end of the bay.

From over the islands an eagle soars, turning its great wheel around the sky. As it nears, fierce eyes glare directly down upon the girls. It descends. Curved and razor sharp talons extend toward them.

Should Melilia and Gotha scurry under the nearest rock, retreat into the deep woods? Or should they stand where they are, firm in the faith that the eagle will swoop down and carry them to the Celestial Kingdom?

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[End]

One Response to “An Unfinished Story About Eagles”

  1. Mary Ellen Gambutti

    Thank you fir the range of feelings and beautiful images. A memorable story!

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