In the mirror
Extracts from the novel Helene (WSOY, 2003). Introduction by Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse
It was raining that day, and I was leafing through art books, as I often do, in the bookshop. Then I happened to pick up a work in which there was a picture; a bowl of apples, one of which was black.
Stories often begin like this, inexplicable as deep waters, secret as an unborn child which moves its mouth in the womb as if it wished to speak. For people do not seek mere understanding… people seek the sulphurous, tumultuous shapes of clouds; people seek bowls of apples of which one is black.
I bought the book and made an enlargement of the still life; on the wall, it was even more remarkable, for its correct position was standing up, tête à tête, looking straight at you, unblinking.
The apples seemed to move, to speak. I began to ponder them more and more. In the end I had to read everything I could lay my hands on about the still life’s painter. I had to visit Hyvinkää, where she lived for a long time, and touch her tree in Tammisaari with my hand. I had to travel as far as Brittany to see the rugged landscape that meant so much to her.
One winter’s evening, I go to the cemetery that lies at the heart of the city.
I wander along paths that have been cleared in the snow among the headstones. There is a strong frost.
The Schjerfbecks’ small gravestone is in the far comer of the cemetery, by the sea, almost completely covered in untouched snow.
Why am I here? I ask in astonishment, gazing at the oxidised green angel which raises its snowy hands rhetorically toward the sky.
Helene, I say, the story I am going to tell, your story, is also mine, for you have captured in your still life something which every star in the sky, and every insignificant blade of grass too, feels to be its own.
Do not be startled, I said, if I do not tell your story naturalistically, for if you wish me to tell a good story – and you loved stories – you must take this risk. Moreover, if I remember correctly, you did not particularly care for naturalism.
The snow sparkles on her headstone, and I do not brush it away.
No answer. The headstone hides in the snow as if saying: Do not disturb. Have you not read that I asked for even my letters to be destroyed, all of the past. No one even knows my Englishman’s name. Let me sleep.
From the main gate I can hear the quiet rush of the deserted city, it is as if it is listening.
She does not answer. She sleeps, and perhaps she has a right to do so. But do I (I was no longer talking to her; I had turned my back), do I not have the right of the living to tell the story of the moon or of sixpence – so why not hers?
Monday. The time is three minutes to three.
God have mercy, it is that afternoon. There they are, playing and shrieking, children will find the joy in anything –
Her bigger brother is chasing Helena, who is four. She is running merrily in her linen frock and her little pigtails, the doors are slamming, chairs falling
down the stairs! she thinks, down into the hold, the Pirate won’t go there… Helena runs and runs… SWOOps, like an ALbatross, WHIte, swoops and dives, staggers a little! grabs the handra…
and then it happens. Her hand doesn’t reach.
Helena SLips on the steep steps, WHirLS and DIves, whirles endlessly, thinking like a giant fork of lightning about just one thing, where to grab hold, no, no, there’s nowhere, the seconds are space years, big, frightened, merciless, shelterless
Helena smashes down, one leg is badly twisted beneath the other.
The black wall-clock strikes the hour. Bing bing bing. Helena raises her head again and again, crying.
‘T -try to get u -up,’ Tilda, the red-cheeked maid says, ‘Damn, she can’t move it, her leg, get your mother, quick,’ she prods Magnus.
Helena is carried to bed.
Oh the sorrow and the weeping! Helena’s real family is on the spot in a moment: Rembrandt, later one of the child’s most trusted friends, comes to the door and looks at her intensely from under the deep brim of his hat.
A horrified St Bonaventure, on his stretcher, raises an eyelid.
Fra Angelico’s fire-clad angel wants to give the child some water from the palm of his hand.
But Helena has fainted again. Her own guardian angel limps, frightened, through the room; her rag doll Rosalinda has closed her long-lashed eyes tightly.
‘Never mind,’ her mother, Olga, says, her face bright with splotches, ‘lucky it wasn’t her neck…. The leg is in a fairly good position. I have seen limbs twisted worse.’
‘Let’s call the doctor,’ says her father, Svante, in a voice hoarse with coughing, stroking Helena’s clammy forehead.
‘I suppose you’re going to find the money,’ mother snaps. She places her hand on her belly, still big from birthing. ‘And what about Magnus’s books and school uniform – ?’
When the pain gets worse, a faith healer is called, from a long way away, from Inkoo. The hours go by…. Finally a stooped old woman arrives, tries cautiously to lift the leg. Helena screams.
The healer binds the child’s lower body tightly in a sheet. The head of the thigh-bone is broken,’ she says.
‘Two months bed-rest for the girl, without moving,’ she says, shaking her head.
The child suffers terrible pain –
There I lie…. That child’s ‘I’ was not formed from games and speed, but fear and solitude, the peace of snowflakes… cries of pain which were not always heard,
‘I’ was born to strive among others, to light.
I was a quiet child. My large, slightly protruding eyes were watery, on my cheek was a blue spot popularly known as ‘the bite of the gods’.
There I lie, gazing at a mobile made from straw, I gaze at its little cubes, which sway lightly when the door is opened.
In solitude, perseverance takes root in a person, the patience of a wolf left behind by the pack. The brain works with an abnormal capacity. The senses grow sharper.
I hear the children’s raw war-cries from the courtyard, and sometimes the calm clip-clop of the horses’ hoofs, their amiable whinnying. I follow the course of the day accurately from the level of light.
I have nightmares.
‘The poor thing is always banging her head on the pillow in her sleep,’ Tilda tells mother. ‘And we have to burn a candle until she falls asleep – ’
One day father brings me paper and a pen.
My brother Magnus has always teased me about my long fingers (‘One joint more than the others’) and called me a ‘little monkey’.
Until now I have only looked at pictures. Father’s map of the world and the Bible’s detailed illustrations, drawn as if at the top of one’s voice.
Gradually, fumblingly, I began to draw. First I drew a flower on the table. Then the candle, my doll Rosalinda… finally my brother Magnus.
What I was now doing made me breathless with happiness. But I was still not certain. I covered my work with knitting at lightning speed if someone came in.
After my fall, I had been moved into a different room, with a small window at ceiling level.
You could not see the sky.
Taciturn Maija, 70 years old, a tiny widow from Ostrobothnia, slept with me, binding my hip fast in a sheet when it hurt.
‘Now, Elli, is everything all right?’ someone shouts. I answer mechanically: ‘Yes.’
I draw and draw, now outside the concept of reality, of time and place, isolated from my bare room. I draw for hours, as if in a trance. For moments at a time I am certain.
I lie in bed like a pile of black wings.
I tore up eight sketches this morning. How can I be so awful? And that same old seamstress again –
Is an industrious copyist all that became of me?
I listen to the noise in the corridor.
The sound of a wheelchair – Alexandra Kollontay is being taken to the balcony. This convinced communist, the former Soviet ambassador to Stockholm, converses elegantly with her nurse, gesticulating.
There is not much left of the ambassador, or of Gabrielle Tavaststjerna, the writer, who has strangely yellowed ears. The women often sit in the corridor like two chipped Kuznetsov china cups.
I am still curious. Curious to see how the hidden centre of a person surfaces with age. Particularly in the face. The eyes.
Showing how you have lived.
Thoughts, slogans are, on the human face, like footprints in wet sand. It is not only time, but man himself, who shapes his face.
Directly above me lives the film actress Olivia Merz. She – I have heard – ‘kills time’ by trying on the shoes of her youth. She has 59 pairs of them.
I wonder what they say about me?
I suppose I am the most famous resident, am I?
Funny… the children were afraid of me in Tammisaari, when I sat, upright, lost in my memories, under the lilac tree, a Balzac novel, in the original, in my hand.
I still went out then…. Hmm…. I sat on my green bench for at least an hour! And I always drove once during the summer to the sea shore. Curtains twitched. Now they saw me, the hermit of the Julin house with her talkative assistants.
Poor Stenman, he thinks I will still recover.
Am I a tiger after all… in Sweden more than in Finland. Who would be a prophet in his native town?
‘The greatest possible refinement’ ran the praise for my last exhibition, but this was immediately followed by ‘feminine overexcitement’ and ‘mannerist exaggeration’. But his contemporaries criticised even hot-handed Tintoretto!
‘The arts freeze here’, as someone wrote (Erasmus, from Switzerland). Artists always freeze in their search for the new…. The brilliant Holbein knew it as he was forced to fashion jewels for the English queen when he was driven into exile.
I am, please note, a foreign member of the Swedish Academy of Arts, immediately after Picasso. (Strange that this was not noted at all in the Finnish press.)
And in 1937 the rich Gösta Stenman, who had moved to Sweden, arranged my second solo exhibition in his Stockholm art gallery. The show was, they said, a ‘sensation’. I was 75.
My works have been on show in an international exhibition of works by women in Paris, Milan, Rome. I am as valuable… as a royal jewel.
Gösta Stenman owns me. He pays for my costly room and all my expenses. In return, he can take everything I paint. He can take me wherever he wants…. I am now at home wherever I hang my coat, like [the painter] Juho Rissanen.
‘You should insure your hands,’ Stenman wags his finger, hearing of my continual falls.
But falling downstairs was not the first thing that registered in my memory. There was something else before that: the first meeting. Connection.
That was also why I drew.
I could not see the sky from my childhood window.
Life, this too I did not know, was red and warm – the tree’s shadow moved across the courtyard, the sun moved. And a man always came to the stairwell to play his accordion, tilting it – why? Many people listened, interrupting what they were doing to stand at the window.
It is Saturday. The rooms smell of newly washed wood.
Helena has been lifted, in her spotted dress, on to the drawing-room window-sill. She sits and waits, waits: soon a man will come, carrying a ladder, and light the gas lamp.
But soon people come, lots of them! all of them men, all of them in grey-brown clothes.
‘Now they’re going past,’ Tilda shouts, ‘the Russian troops.’ The Tsar himself (in his glittering and his ermine cloak, hidden somewhere) is in town, which is full of rostrums and bunting, great As for the Tsar… processions, sausage kiosks, brass bands.
Now they are marching past… and will they notice? they do! the two-year-old Helena. She lowers her blonde head, raises it again…. The happy soldiers – the hated Russians – raise their hands, smiling, Helena raises hers too!
It is ‘une communication’, a connection. She has been noticed, she exists…. The soldiers wave and solemnly salute.
Olga and Svante, may I ask you… may I interrupt your deep sleep for a moment….
You treated me like a staggering calf, a strange creature that gathers stars from a twisted lawn, draws fairy-tales in which witches’ hips are on fire….
But did you love me?
We were a family. A careful unit…. In our garden there grew a maple tree whose leaves quivered, rustled, and I was afraid… in the end I was even afraid of my fear –
I gradually learned to bend over and pull the coarse woollen socks on to my feet, but I still froze, froze like the earth, a club frozen in the earth.
Olga and Svante (I call you now by your given names, not by your duty names ‘father’ and ‘mother’’, Olga and Svante, yes, yes you loved me, me, who almost did not exist….
One day I see, in a neighbour’s house, a bone-coloured clock face with a green rose. I am perhaps four years old.
I gaze at the clock face. The clock face with the strange rose. I almost burst into tears when mother pulls me away.
There aren’t any green roses, mother says gently.
It grows quiet. The gas lamps burn, hissing.
Mother Olga, strong-shouldered – of the soldierly Prinz family –,comes and lifts Helena down from the window-sill. Helena wriggles.
In the evenings, mother combs her longhair and sings: ‘Och månen vandrar på fästet blå, och tittar in genom rutan’, ‘And the moon wanders across the blue vault of heaven and looks in through the window…’ it is enchanted and downy and soft.
Mother sings in the evenings, when the moonrays move across the floor, and milk-blue veins criss-cross her ample forearms. She stretches out her fingers, gazes at her ring with the black stone, and sings.
It is only when she is five that Helena, little ‘Elli’, tries to walk, a year after her fall. It hurts, a lot, it is a quiet as icy water, they now live with a window overlooking Vladimir street (what a beautiful word), Helena tries to walk, hard, biting her lip, nothing comes of it, nothing at all.
But soon Helena manages, on holiday at Sjunby, to walk step by step to the swing and to sit there, Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck, as if intoxicated, people, startled by the certain fortresses of people’s bodies; her back taut and straight, she sits and looks.
On the icy November steps, at home, she stumbles and falls, and has to spend another month in bed. In the dark she does not know if she exists. She beats her head against the pillow, beats it –
Father brings her a graphite-grey kitten. ‘For company, Elli.’ The cat shines electric in the dark room, a small beast of prey. It is warm in her lap. It is a brilliant model.
Magnus went to school that autumn.
My brush has abandoned beauty. What a frightened crocodile gazed back at me from the mirror today. My God!
It was a good working week. Yesterday I finished ‘Sisters’, today I began ‘The gypsy woman’ (now there are two easels in my room). Then I repainted ‘Still life’.
They praise my ‘peace’…. They do not know the pressure under which I live.
This evening I kept the window open as a reward to sense the smell of snow. And to rid the room of its stuffy smell. Is it from me, an old moth, that it comes?
Some old man, with a pug-like, sorrowful face – Minister Ardell – stood for a moment in the courtyard. There is a full moon.
Solitude is something one chooses oneself…. Melancholy has followed me through life like a dark thread, glancing sideways at the golden thread that is still there: the will to create.
‘You should talk too,’ my English fiancé often said to me.
‘But I do talk,’ I said, and told him about my childhood.
I told him, I wanted to tell him, because his forehead – I believed, and perhaps I was actually right – was made of the same heavenly cedawood as mine.
In Hyvinkää I see a girl. On my walk through the forest.
The naked figure sits in front of the sauna on a stool. Her steaming skin glows in the sunshine, her breasts are oval, her nipples swollen pink.
At the same time the girl notices me and conceals herself with a towel. But I have already registered everything, I have seen Solomon’s lovely Bathsheba! I feel as if I were in Paris again, where we paid the high-waisted African Tanya to be our nude model.
I make many sketches as soon as I get home. Still wearing my coat, standing.
‘There’s mud running off your shoes!’ Mother Olga is standing there at once.
‘Leave me alone,’ I snap.
How long does it take to break free of one’s coincidental parents?
And how long does it take an artist to fell what went before and plant flourishing new kinds of trees? One’s own cruel thoughts. For ruthlessness is the foundation of art; I learned that when I was young in Paris.
It was impossible to ask the unknown sauna-bather to pose for us – it is unlikely she would have even agreed.
On many a Saturday I crept through the forest. In vain. Wrapped in her lovely flesh, the shy Bathsheba had vanished. I had to be content with my gift of a few seconds, although I usually study my subject for a long time before sketching it.
I take an experienced model as a substitute. Signe is a Parisian coquette as well as very pretty. She demands five marks an hour! I paint her naked down to the waist.
In the middle of the sitting the model’s delicate head flops sideways; the girl has been working in a textile factory since six in the morning.
She starts and wakes. ‘No, no, stay as you are,’ I make haste to say; the pose is excellent.
But there is, after all, not enough of Bathsheba’s modesty in the nodder, her Finnish origin. I must paint from memory again.
I am never as calm or satisfied as after a good painting moment.
Mariefred, 6 January 1946
‘Why not,’ my doctor growls, ‘if it will refresh you. But you must dress warmly.’ He looks at me rigorously. ‘Vous êtes inflexible’ – you do as you wish anyway.
I have asked to be taken in my wheelchair to the shore. I could not (could I?) go on foot. Perhaps I could reach the shore, but I could not walk back.
‘I would love to,’ I plead for many days, and finally the doctor agrees.
‘But you must not catch cold; your tests are next week.’
Inez dresses me in my old rabbit-fur coat. My lower body is wrapped how considerate – in a soft green blanket.
There are only four degrees of frost. Even the low sun makes the landscape glow, as if it were blazing off gold leaf. The trees’ shadows stretch out slenderly. New, clean snow has fallen overleaf. Seagulls swoop here and there; somewhere a dog is barking hoarsely.
Inez pushes me slowly to the shore.
I have escaped my room!
Here I am, blue sky! Bonjour!
The wind fresh in my face.
The winter-frosted ground smells as it does in Brittany… très agréable…. I remember how I drove, in Tammisaari, through the ancient, wise, green forest, through all the green that teemed in its light… when we arrived, my fish-spear eyes saw motionless pike in the water. I remember how I saw, there from my studio window, the queen of the east, a rainbow….
At the shore, Inez stands still.
‘Ice and ice,’ she says, claps her mittens together and gazes at the wide landscape, which even the last young swans left before Christmas.
‘Leave me here for a moment,’ I say. I push my hands, which have turned cold, under the blanket.
The sea. Here it is, even under its icy crust, here, the sea. The waves which, free, surge between Sweden, Finland, France, England…. The waves, that great unifying bond.
The wind whirls strongly against my face,
a hurricane could take my being, my entire sanatorium! like a piece of straw. But the raw power of nature also invades me; I feel strengthened, bathed. The light so strong that my eyelids smart.
A great moment. I close my eyes and still see the light.
It tells of spring, it is in a strong alliance with it. I hear the seagulls shrieking the name of light in their own rough way, carrying the light like a little communion wafer in their beaks.
And the stone-hard, frozen ground under my wheelchair is full of calmly waiting beings deep in hibernation… dragonflies, grubs, frightening molluscs, caterpillars. Sleep, faites de beaux rêves… sleep, the roots of poppies and of lupins….
With my bare hand I touch the massive, gnarled tree-trunk. It is as if it answered me from its depths.
A dead branch falls with a crunch from the poplar – as if in greeting – on to the snow as Inez pushes me briskly inside.
Through the window I see the bighead of my doctor. I am already freezing, as if in a fever. I must take some of the buckthorn juice Miina sent; it always helps.
I am afraid.
But I have a subject, I paint it very primitively, Christ and myself, the two of us.
… but where was it… in which country did I make linen curtains for my studio, was it in Tammisaari? There, there… in the town of my strength, curtains as thick as leather, I sewed them, to give my room, my little paintings, depth… depth,
give me something, to stop the pai…
the clown’s silver trumpet sounds, I am alive… but my body is peevish, peevish,
o thou immortal strength, o thou – thou yellow wooden Christ of
Trémalo, I have prayed to thee… for years
(this helped a little!)
very yellow steps from the stone chapel of Trémalo, steps down, it is night, enormous, the stained-glass windows black.
WHO IS HE?
he is our guardian, he walks with stiff, angry legs, walks through the foggy village of pont aven,
his lips move awkwardly, he raises his wooden hand in blessing, blessing e the spiders, blessing the whole of our world, all the little wild roses he blesses, the dirty sins, the rugged, solitary mountains, the tubes of colour that Vincent ate, even them!
he picks a plum from the tree and eats it, he too is hungry, ‘blessed be those who and those who’ he mumbles to the moon, which is a vehement blood red, why?
perhaps because he too is alone, he too is beset by storms, his tears flow, lovers he blesses particularly, with great bows, the earth explodes with light,
is it hard to be away from the chapel, away from your own place, at the mercyof FIRE and WATER,
so that you, you lovely yellow, our grain-ripe guardian….
And John… to you…
I would have carried… I too would have carried you through the fire of life,
let the Wooden Christ forgive,
let him wrestle with the stone Jacob-agony of humankind, let him pull EVERYONE’s hips out of joint, everyone’s! the young man the mighty angel, let them all limp, blessed, equally, their joints out of place.
we are still here,
the earth explodes with light, the red rose laughs, we won it at a market stall, a paper flower, little blackbirds, they pull us, our coffin, we are there, together, a white sheet up to the neck, dew on our eyelids, night’s copious water,
dran drom dran, da-drom, my feet press in his footprints, the vein in my neck throbs,
oh! mares gallop in the meadow, what a country! grapes hang from their vines, heavy as Adam’s balls, women give birth, with ample hips, they scream, the church’s stained-glass windows are black,
for everything has been forgiven now, with a smile from Christ’s resinous eyes, the shyness of the market rose, the flame-grace of a woman’s skin –
we were here, we have been, we come, we ripen,
this canvas is empty, I sign it, it is not ‘Lady Sorrow’, it does not sit next to our bed, it is ‘Invisible’, it is an empty canvas, light passes easily through it, and waggons, clopping hooves, the smell of our rooms, and Mozart’s uncontrollable laughter –
o thou most merciful of all, thou pickest our fallen eyes from the ground, thou fixest our ears in place, our arms to our shoulders,
and the sun, it has suffered an epileptic fit, it tears our paintings apart, it feels such great happiness,
space trembles, there is no more selling or bartering, a pure canvas, I sign it
my road is below, BELOW like the thorny bushes that prick my legs, below like the shrinking lilies of the valley which ring with gratitude like the bright bells of St Petersburg
did I fall asleep?
did you come my nephew, my beloved son… Måns?
‘Would you read some Finnish to me,’ I say with difficulty to Lilith, who I know was born in Helsinki.
‘But I have no books here,’ she says.
‘The library… I wonder if there is something there… anything’
‘I s-sing a sorrowful song, tune a wish-verse,’ Lilith is soon reading the Kanteletar,
what long inflections in this snow-language, long and juicy as birch catkins.
‘I s-sing a sorrowful song,’ she reads, what an undulating language, I lie and listen like a child.
Old Maija sometimes sang me Finnish lullabies.
Is it angels that hold me up by the armpits, for I am still painting, sitting on the side of the bed,
I am working on an arrangement of apples, soft brown.
Next Sunday I will improve that black spot there.
We will not give in!
Stenman has an important visitor, the director of the British Museum.
So he will not come – to my great disappointment – this Sunday.
He was here yesterday (a scented mimosa in a vase); I was asleep.
Gotthard Johansson is particularly delighted by how my paintings are ‘far from the healthy and mathematical world’.
One is always amazed by critical interpretations. ‘Some bizarre drawings look as if they bubble up through the mud (!) like rare bog plants,’ he writes. ‘Their beauty is as difficult to capture as that of the toadflax with its hairy (hmm) dark red leaves….’ Is it me? So strange, bizarre!
He has sent transparent blue larkspurs for my desk.
No, I do not have the energy to receive them, ‘they only want to bring flowers, a young couple, your admirers’,
‘I don’t have the energy’,
‘could you come to the window, they would look in from outside’,
‘well, help me to the window, kind Inez,’I mutter, ‘by the way, I wish to paint you again, Inez – ’
There they are, looking solemnly, I raise my hand to them.
They, too, raise their hands, smiling.
I am suddenly moved, this is a communication! as when I was a child, they raise their hands, I raise mine –
My big-headed doctor has dictated absolute bed-rest (la coeur, madame, your heart, he says) but I get up secretly at night and begin my ‘Self-portrait’.
The frost sparkles.
I sketch quickly, slippers on my feet. My heart beats randomly, my lips are silver-blue.
A phantom appears on the canvas, or a strange foliole, perhaps a mushroom (I have picked millions of them),
all part of the same natural world, the same great breath of wind, it is no longer I,
it is a flame, or a dried bud –
perhaps a dragonfly’s chrysalis, still warm….
I have completed my thank-you present for Stenman! ‘An old lady painter’, I write on the back,
he will certainly see… from this painting he will also receive the message that I no longer wish… no longer have the energy, now you can fly me to some cheap pension in Finland….
I have no wise words to say to you… my dear court intendant….
In the light everything is bright, and unforgettable.
The pain is sometimes like an electric needle in my stomach.
Lilith, give me a piece of paper and a pen, here next to my bed,
it must always be there, I have a good subject,
o Måns, my dear dandy, thank you for coming and singing to me Måns, when you were still suckling you once sang in my room, in the night… you stroked my cheek,
take ‘The Convalescent’, it is hidden in my cupboard and take, my dear, my father’s book of poems, Irish Melodies, keep them carefully, take this portrait of Olga, give it to Hanna –
Do you have to go so soon? go, please go, my little grenadier, go and rejoice, enjoy life, I have now got… what day is it today? Has the year changed…. Swans… are they,
And what day is it today, Inez, Christmas? The Stenmans, and a little Christmas tree, so delicately decorated, it is so long since then… and Bertha brings such sweet-smelling pralines.
The pen and paper are definitely there, aren’t they, Lilith, I have a subject, a brilliant subject… we two,
is there no one here, is Einar,
Kristian, the riddle is incomplete,
is Einar not here after all, isn’t… is not?
Nurse, go away for a moment, I want to be alone,
come, come back, who are you? Inez?
give me a pain injection,
give me another one, quick Inez!
now it is good, now it is good … leave me for a moment
Hjälp Herre du av nåde blid, hjälp Herre – Help me God thou of gentle mercy, help me God –
someone has climbed on to the thatched roof, father,
can you see the sea, ‘La mer arrive’, someone is shouting, the tide is coming in!
he is the Fisherman from years ago, he is young, his black hair blazes in the wind, ‘Helene’, he shouts, ‘climb up here, quickly, I will help.’
‘La mer’, dear God, I see it,
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
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