Against Ruins, in Praise of Pink
– Fiction by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub – March 18, 2019
“Yes, yes. Over there is fine. Just under the middle window. Thank you so much,” Braynah said, directing the two workmen. Both men, in burly middle age, were wearing overalls, sweat stained and paint-splattered. Braynah could have asked her friends to help her set all of this up … or at least most of it. The paintings weren’t, after all, very heavy. The sculptures were obviously heavier, but still not unmanageable. But she wanted this to be a complete surprise. She probably could have handled them herself. But she didn’t want to tax herself with the lifting. Yes, at 82, she prided herself on her spryness and strength. Years of yoga, calisthenics, and light weightlifting had seen to that. Braynah had even gone that very morning, flirting as usual with Steve, the colossal bodybuilder who, implausibly, had taken a shine to her.
“Hey Steve, looking good!” she said. And indeed Steve did, his biceps straining against his flesh, his tank top leaving little to the imagination. Today was Steve’s chest day. Braynah loved sneaking glances at the power of his body in horizontal form. Not that she desired him really. Of course not! Rather, she admired his intensity, his dedication to forging his body into something so … some might have called it a work of art, but to Braynah, it had more to do with grandeur and achievement and scale. It was a dedication born of repetition, deprivation of pleasurable foods, and research. That had to be acknowledged.
Braynah thought Steve looked as good today as when he had modeled for her years back. When was that? Seven years ago? In her work with life models, Braynah had found bodybuilders and physique models to be somewhat shy or modest, discreetly undressing, refraining from removing briefs until the last minute, immediately slipping into bathrobes during breaks. Steve was anything but. He veritably threw away his t-shirt and jumped out of his shorts. He hadn’t even been wearing briefs. Often he walked around during the breaks in the nude. Of course, their session was completely professional, or artistic, as it were. But still … it had been a treat to feast her eyes on Steve in such an open manner. Open as in not having to hide and open-ended in terms of time allotted. Braynah ended the sessions when she thought the portrait was done.
“You too, babe!” Steve responded.
And Braynah thought—well, not exactly, or at least not anymore, but still not too bad for eighty-two. Braynah liked to maintain warm, even friendly, interactions with as many of the gym regulars as she could. It really was a community of sorts, all of them nobly, if futilely, seeking to enhance the now, to postpone the inevitable. Braynah realized she was something of a mascot to them, an endearing if freakish old lady who probably should have been knitting blankets for her grandchildren or neighbors’ children. She could see it in their eyes. Still, there were worse things to be. And she loved being a part of them. More than that, she loved the adrenaline that surged through her before, during, and after her workouts. Maybe she was a freak …
Still Braynah didn’t want to push her luck today. Not at this stage of the game. And it would be just her luck to fall off a ladder while setting up her farewell exhibit. No, she needed everything to go smoothly.
Braynah’s clothes, or at least her smock, were also splattered and speckled with paint stains, fresh and ancient. Braynah had a series of them that she wore regularly, many them in near tatters, in addition to the paint stains. Braynah kept few possessions in her studio or her home. A bed, a table and chairs, her paintings, her art supplies, and her art books. And that was it, really. She never had much interest in possessions. But she kept her studio smocks in a separate wardrobe, where their fumes could be somewhat contained. Braynah liked to look at the paint stains, remembering the painting to which they were connected, the period of her art, the state of her consciousness at the time. She saw the smocks as extensions of her paintings.
“Once all of the paintings are in the space, you can then hang them on the walls,” Braynah continued, watching the men as they brought in her work. As the paintings began to accumulate, it seemed to Braynah that they took took up more space than she imagined they would. Reproducing seemingly … Metastasizing? Still, it was a lifetime of work. That was something.
Braynah had carefully numbered the paintings and then marked the walls with corresponding numbers. The system was working out well; the workmen were effortlessly hanging up her work on the walls. Although she hovered over them, there was very little that Braynah actually had to do.
After their work was done, Braynah invited the men into the kitchen for some lemonade and ginger cookies. Braynah picked the cookies up from the bakery on her street. She rarely ate bread or sweets, but liked to support small businesses. And so she bought something from the bakery whenever she could. Sometimes she brought bread for homeless people she encountered on the street, and sometimes she fed it to the birds in the park. The shorter workman was named Javier; the taller was Esteban. Javier’s English was better, and Braynah knew very little Spanish. Still, they made themselves understood. The universal language of mutual gratitude and acknowledgment. And art. Well, she had doubts about that, given some of the recent reviews of her work. Still, Braynah hoped her work spoke to them across the language divide. Seeing the men snack somehow pleased Braynah. And she was grateful for how seamlessly Javier and Esteban assembled her oeuvre.
Once Javier and Esteban left, Braynah allowed herself to look around. Usually, she hated to look at her work. But today was different. She had to be ready. And there they were: the landscapes, the abstract period, the stripes and circles, period, the portraits.
The nudes had to be outside the sanctuary area. Hayim Kestenberg was adamant about that when Braynah approached him with the idea of an art show.
“What kind of an art show?” he asked.
“A career retrospective of my work,” she’d said.
“In a synagogue? Do you really think that’s … appropriate?” Hayim asked.
“Sure, why not. Listen, this is where I davened for years. My father was a founding member and nominally a rabbi. What could be more appropriate?”
“Hmm … I don’t know. Somehow …”
“What? It will be great, and besides, Haverim Ahuvim as a synagogue no longer exists,” she said, then wishing she could take it back. Hayim, of all people, did not need to be reminded that Haverim Ahuvim was no longer a synagogue.
“Yes, but the holiness never leaves. You know what, let me think about this, Braynah,” he said.
Braynah knew that if Hayim “thought” about it, nothing would happen. Just as nothing “happened” with the building itself, which remained empty and unused for years. She needed an answer then and right then.
“Please, Hayim. I’ll be completely respectful,” she said.
“Well, ok. But no naked paintings in the sanctuary. You can put them in the women’s section or the hallway or the kitchen,” he said.
“Fine. Absolutely fine. Thank you so much, Hayim!” she said.
So that was what he was concerned about—nude studies in the sanctuary of Haverim Ahuvim! Braynah thought Hayim would cite the prohibition against graven images and allow her to display only the non-representational works to be shown or forbid the exhibit altogether. She was more than happy to comply with his request to keep the nudes out of the sanctuary. They would work wherever they were placed. In fact, she would place them in the women’s section. Somehow that seemed appropriate. Let the women’s section be where the most transgressive, experimental, and—dare she even think it—impactful art was placed.
And as she entered the women’s section, Braynah was pleased. The nudes adorned the walls of the room, overlooking the tables at which were once seated Kiddush celebrants and Council meeting attendees and benches that once seated women and girls at prayer. Apparently, the women’s section benches hadn’t been given to the auction house. She’d assigned the life portrait of Steve, the bodybuilder from her gym, to a discreet spot towards the end of the show. One of her more conventional pieces, she didn’t want it to be in the limelight. Steve had been pleased with the portrait, although perhaps not pleased enough to attend this show. He said he had a prior commitment, although Braynah had given him an invitation to the opening months in advance. Upon collective viewing, the nudes confirmed their status as Braynah’s favorite—simultaneously electric, sensual, and jagged. Painted in shades of green, orange, blue, red, and many other shades, primary and otherwise, they veritably vibrated in tautness and exhilaration. Some might have thought they clashed against each other—Braynah was already anticipating the critics’ opprobrium—but she found them strangely harmonious. Perhaps the portrait of Steve would be considered jarringly conventional, a blemish on the exhibit’s playful spirit. Had she always had the critics’ voices in her head or was she particularly sensitive now since this was going to be her farewell exhibit?
The paintings in the sanctuary and the small daily chapel were no less pleasing to her. There were the portraits of some of the synagogue members who had sat for her over the years—Arnold and Myrna Kestenberg in very old age just before their deaths, Mindl Vakhtman, Gavriel Kestenberg, her own parents, Yehudah and Tovah, Ira and Esther Fogel, Sheldon Shapiro.
Sheldon who took the minutes of Council meeting minutes all those years. Had anyone gotten to know him? Braynah peered at the owlish face, the round tortoiseshell glasses, the shock of black/gray hair she captured those many years ago, the narrow shoulders blended into the brown gray background. In another generation, with another temperament, he might have been a Communist or anarchist firebrand at the barricades or an avant-garde poet in a literary movement arguing the finer points of an aesthetic manifesto in a café or a scholar bent over long tables in a book-lined reading room. Perhaps Sheldon had been one of those things … in a secret life. She and the others in Haverim Ahuvim—for she felt sure he had not revealed himself to other congregants, either—had known him as only the taker of minutes. Braynah realized that she shouldn’t think “only.” After all, Sheldon Shapiro was a modern scribe of sorts, wasn’t he? Without his minutes, no record of the meetings would have existed. Bah, she told herself, she always had been one to romanticize the quotidian. What was Sheldon’s source of income? She realized she never knew. She could have asked someone. She could have asked Sheldon himself. When he was sitting for her portrait, she could have asked then. But she never did. Somehow she was always so wrapped up in her work … or maybe the question just seemed off limits somehow. Perhaps she didn’t want to know.
Braynah had tried to capture the individuality of all of her sitters, and at the time she had felt that she had done just that. Now, looking at the portraits, she wasn’t so sure. Maybe it was her mood today—the unsettling mixture of melancholy and jubilation—maybe it was the setting of her old (and only) synagogue. Despite Braynah’s use of her trademark vivid colors, there seemed to be a sepia glow to these portraits.
And there was her favorite portrait: Henny Rumshevitz Weissman. Her friend Henny. Braynah remembered their times together in childhood and youth. Nearly every Shabbas, and the movies they’d attended in their teenage years. The excitement as Henny began to date. And the uncertainty as she married the handsome and intimidating Dov Ber “Velvl” Weissman.
Braynah could still remember their walk in the park as Henny conveyed her fears about the the single-mindedness of Velvl, his total devotion to the Torah way of life. Even back then Braynah realized that Henny was at a crossroads in her life, and that their friendship was, too. She looked away from Henny’s creased brow and into the pink flowers that lined the promenade. How she wanted to cut off several blooms and weave them into Henny’s curls. How she wanted to say, “Henny, you don’t have to do this! Stop! Come with me instead.” How! How indeed. But of course, she didn’t. She couldn’t. The taste of ashes coated Braynah’s tongue as they walked back to their homes. The pink flowers remained on the promenade’s border. Henny announced her engagement soon after that walk without telling Braynah first. And the rest was … Well, what was the rest?
They failed to maintain their friendship over the years as Braynah pursued her art with a single-minded ferocity that precluded any romantic attachments and left little time for few friendships. She’d had to, it was the only way she could have achieved anything. The art world was competitive then and mostly a man’s world. In many ways, it still was.
Still, Braynah knew that wasn’t the reason for the severing of her friendship with Henny. She would have made time with Henny; of course, she would have. Henny was barred from seeing her. Braynah tried visiting the Weissman house, but nobody answered. She wrote, but her letters were sent back unopened. When she called, someone else—Dov Ber or one of the children—answered and Henny never came to the phone.
Nothing stung Braynah more than being cut off from Henny. Her own parents always welcomed her home, provided she dressed modestly, which she always did. Occasionally, she even went to services at Haverim Ahuvim and smiled and nodded at the women in the women’s section. Mindl Vakhtman was unfailingly kind. But that was what the general feeling towards Braynah was—kindness, just short of pity. Unmarried, living in a garret in God knows what kind of neighborhood, on God knows what kind of income. What kind of life was that for a (Jewish) woman?
Although Braynah knew Henny hadn’t voluntarily cut herself off from Braynah, that she had been made to do it by Velvl, Henny’s distance hurt Braynah. She felt a longing, an ache that hadn’t subsided over the years. Hence, the ferocity of those colors, some might have conjectured if they had known. Only Braynah never told anyone. There wouldn’t have been any point. This portrait, done from memory and from photographs of Henny, said it all.
The chandelier was cleaned of decades of dust. Its many crystals gleamed and twinkled. Tall white candles strategically placed away from and between the paintings flickered everywhere. The benches in the women’s section was polished. Hayim had hired an army of cleaners who had spent a full day cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing. The synagogue shined in a way that it hadn’t in years. Except for the absence of benches in the sanctuary, it could almost have been a functioning synagogue. Although she hadn’t regularly attended prayer service her (or anywhere) in decades, she still hated to think that Haverim Ahuvim as a functioning congregation was no more and never would be again. Well, she shouldn’t say never …
“I thought this was going to be a show about art set in the ruins. I thought it was going to be about Jewish ruins as a construct,” said someone wearing a “Press” badge who didn’t identify herself by name.
“Well, it’s a matter of interpretation. One could argue these are preserved or “sanitized” ruins. Or perhaps they are the presage to ruins,” Braynah found herself fumbling. Usually, she enjoyed speaking about her work.
“Interesting. I don’t see that at all. I see a moment of in-betweenness, between a rich past and … a new one one as yet unknown, a space waiting for its next incarnation. Who knows? Perhaps an art gallery?” the woman said, congratulating Braynah again before disappearing into the crowd.
And what a crowd it was! Braynah had to admit she was pleased by the turnout. She hadn’t known what to expect. Although it was well within the city limits, Haverim Ahuvim was so far from the downtown art scene or any of the trendy neighborhoods, for that matter. The neighborhood had seen better days, truth be told. There were at least three abandoned houses within a three-block radius. One of them was covered in graffiti and not the artful kind that gallery curators liked to talk about—the art of the streets, an untutored “vernacular.” No, this was the just grim markings of urban rage. Men and youth pissing their disdain on what had once been someone’s home. And still might be, if there were squatters and junkies inside. Braynah wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been. Not that she was going to investigate. In another time of her life, she might have, but not now. Braynah was conscious that this was the second time in as many days that she had thought about her age. It was because of this show; there wasn’t any other explanation.
Braynah noticed the state of the neighborhood as she walked around the neighborhood before the show. And the houses that were inhabited were shabby, in need of a fresh coat of paint, or, in some cases, much more. What she and her brother Shemaya used to call the pink house was no more like a fishy gray. A few days ago, in setting up the show with Javier and Esteban (who were here tonight!), she hadn’t had the time to really explore. This was the creeping encroachment of ruins that the woman she’d spoken with earlier ought to have seen.
Ruins as continuum, she thought. How long before Haverim Ahuvim would have inartful graffiti sprayed over its venerable stone walls? Didn’t Hayim pay someone to look in on the synagogue? She hoped he did. What would happen after Hayim was gone? How strange that he’d taken over after his brother Gavriel passed away. Was he finally taken an interest in his family’s synagogue now that it had closed? Well, that wasn’t her concern. Braynah had a show to get through.
It was all so different from the other sites of her exhibits and happenings. Some of them flickered through her mind now. Artists dressed in futuristic silver costumes parading through industrial sanitation sites at midnight, marchers and musicians and dancers all in orange and yellow prancing below the bridge, past abandoned factories (not yet turned into condos), and along the river bank beneath the moon. There had been so many of them. That had been one of the highlights of her career—getting the work away from the galleries and out of the clutches of the gallery owners, who, even this late in her career, continued to wield such power. What a thrill those nights had been—the marching in the darkness, the brightness of the regalia she herself designed moving through the industrial scapes, wasteland vistas, the music of the accordions and trumpets and drums. Had she ever experienced such euphoria? Some grainy videos remained of them and were indeed available for viewing online. Someone had posted them there years ago. They’d even garnered some positive reviews in the alternative newspapers. Braynah kept them in a scrapbook of her career highlights.
“Mazal tov, Braynahle!” It was her brother, Shemaya, sans his wife Devorah, who was not fond of Braynah or her art. Not that she was ever been explicitly rude to Braynah. It was a subtle disdain conveyed in Devorah’s body language the few times they’d ever crossed paths, such as at the bar mitzvahs or weddings of their children and grandchildren. Still, Shemaya never shut Braynah out, was unfailingly loyal, in fact, showing up at every opening, every happening she’d ever staged. Yes, even the one at 2:00 AM in a downpour. All of her dancers wore silver waterproof jumpsuits. That happening was specific to weather, not just site. Braynah had been glued to the radio for the forecasts and quickly assembled the artists and her art action network. Their parents had always accepted Braynah in their (her?) home but they’d never come to see any of her shows. Her father was encouraging of her art when she was a child … until he saw how serious about it she was, how it was no longer a hobby, something to occupy his brooding daughter. Despite his conception of himself as a fair-minded, encouraging father, Braynah knew otherwise. Perhaps it was a residual bitterness due to the fact that he’d never been granted the official title of rabbi. Why did that unrighted wrong hurt her still after all these years of his not supporting her art? Her father never seemed to mind. Or at least, had never let on if he had. Perhaps if he had been granted the position he should have had, his own relationship with her, her own life, might have been different.
“Shemaya! Thank you so much for coming! It means so much to me! Please have some libation. We have seltzer water, juice, sparkling cider … and in plastic cups,” she added, knowing he would immediately be concerned about kashrut if the drinks were served in glassware. And then she added, “So here we are—back in the old shul.”
“How many years has it been? I thought the place was going to be tumbling down. I never thought it could look so … so beautiful. The art looks incredible. And I love your sculpture on the bimah. It’s like a conversation between the sacred and profane,” Shemaya replied. At that, he stopped, hoping he hadn’t offended Braynah at her final show. Braynah saw his uncertainty, but just smiled.
“And which one is which?” she replied, as they both broke into laughter and hugged.
Braynah drifted through the crowd, becoming increasingly less aware of the conversations she was having, the hands she was shaking, the embraces into which she was being folded. She moved between the people and the pieces that made up a lifetime of work. She kept a smile on her face, not because of any social necessity—at her age, no one would have judged her—but because she couldn’t bear to remove it. Her smile, though real, was a dam against the well of feelings roiling within her— her sorrow at this farewell to the world of public presentation of her work her love of this space, Congregation Haverim Ahuvim, the mission of the souls gone now. What was left of it all? And mostly Henny. Always Henny. Why hadn’t she insisted on seeing her friend? Perhaps Henny had not wanted to see her?! Perhaps she sensed something in Braynah that she wanted to bury, put away. Certainly, Braynah was sure she had never revealed the intensity of her feeling to Henny herself. Perhaps Henny had sensed that feeling. Perhaps Braynah had inadvertently revealed something in those darkened cinemas or their conversations in the park afterwards or in the love in her eyes, averted or not. Perhaps Henny understood how much Braynah wanted to share a drink or an ice cream sundae or a meal together—if only just to discuss those movies—but how Braynah knew she had to be content with the brief walks in the park instead.
Javier and Esteban stayed to help clean up. They also brought additional helpers. Hayim paid for their services. “Don’t worry, Braynah, it’s all taken care of,” he assured her.
The pieces of her work that were available for sale were already sold and carted off by their owners. The ones belonging to private collections would be taken down tomorrow and carted off. This carting too Braynah would oversee. The final, final farewell. I really did need to stop using words like “final” and “farewell,” she reminded herself, as the clatter of cleaning continued around her. The semi-naked synagogue walls reminded Braynah that she still had time yet allotted to her.
He had kept some slenderness of form, Braynah noted. Peering at Yehoshua Weissman’s nude form reclining on the array of blankets, Braynah was pleased. This was going to be a fruitful series of sessions. She could tell that. She always could. Somehow, an artist always knew. It had to do with some synergy between the artist and model, an alignment of energy entirely unpredictable. Braynah felt with some of her least experienced models and yearned for it with some of her more experienced ones.
Yehoshua was, of course, an experienced model. Or at least, he had been, years ago, in college. Now, in middle middle-age, he was a bit rusty. Not in in his movements, but in his bearings in an artist studio, the ritual of things. Still, his commitment to the work and his delight in her presence pleased her. She invited him to her studio several weeks after her farewell exhibit. Something unresolved called her.
“Braynah Ariel?! Yes, yes, of course, I remember you,” he said immediately.
“I’m wondering if you’d like to model for me in my studio. I understand you have some experience modeling. I would, of course, pay you a rate commensurate in the field,” she responded.
“How did you know I modeled?” he asked.
“I’m not sure exactly. Through the Haverim Ahuvim grapevine, I guess. Word gets around …” she’d responded vaguely, somewhat taken aback by Yehoshua’s question.
“Well, it has been years …” his voice trailed off uncertainly on the phone.
“I really hope you can,” she said, thinking—first Hayim Kestenberg, now Yehoshua Weissman. The men of Haverim Ahuvim still needed convincing, it seemed. That’s ok, she was up for it.
“Ok, yes, I’ll do it,” he said finally.
Once they arranged the time and she gave Yehoshua her studio address, Braynah felt a sense of joy. It would be good to be back in the studio working again with a model. It would be good to step away from her computer and the task of writing thank you notes to the attendees of her exhibit and the reviewers, who had largely been generous.
And now from that conversation a week ago, here he was in her studio. His skin was mottled; Braynah saw splotches of eczema. Or was it aging? His body hair was salt and pepper, mostly salt. His head was shaved. His body, if not lean exactly, didn’t sag, either. And yet there was no bashfulness or shame; this was a body that had been examined and displayed. Braynah took all of this in while setting up her easel, looking and working without staring as was always her way with models.
There was much she wanted to ask him. What would happen to Haverim Ahuvim? Would Hayim Kestenberg ever sell it? Would the Historical Board take it over? Had Yehoshua kept in touch with any of the congregants? Whatever happened to the Fogels? To Akiva Safir? And how was Hayim doing now that he was the only surviving Kestenberg? How long had it been since Gavriel passed away? And why hadn’t Hayim married? The questions flooded through Braynah as she removed her brushes and arranged her color palette, although she kept her face calm and her demeanor neutral and matter-of-fact. She wouldn’t be using brights today. No, this would be a painting of pinks, whites, and grays.
Rather than these questions, Braynah simply asked Yehoshua, “Are you comfortable?”
“Yes, I am. It’s all coming back to me,” he said, leaning into the folds of pillows and blankets Braynah had set up beforehand.
“Good. I’m glad,” she responded. And it was. And she was.
Again, Braynah thought of Henny. Of Yehoshua’s mother. The woman who gave life to this man lying nude on blankets on a stand in her studio. What did he remember of his mother gone these many years? What could he share? What would he choose to speak of? Had Henny ever mentioned Braynah? Had Henny ever spoken of the times the two of them had shared? And what, if anything, would Braynah share with Yehoshua? Certainly not the fact that she’d never dated a woman … or a man, for that matter. She couldn’t. Who could hold a candle to Henny? All these years, no one. Still, Braynah had her art. My art, my wife. My art, my love that won’t betray me.
Yes, most of all, Braynah wanted to know about Henny. She wanted to know what it would have been like to live with Henny, to be with her every day. Her unexpected smile, her determination, her generosity, her grace, her skin so pearly, even at the elbows which, according to Jewish law, shouldn’t have been exposed. Maybe her son would speak of her, maybe he wouldn’t. Time would tell. There was plenty of time for that.
Perhaps revelation would happen in tidbits, or drips, rather than torrents. If there were to be revelation at all, it would happen in the breaks. Except to make sure they were comfortable, Braynah rarely conversed with her models while she was painting. It could tamper with the concentration of both artist and model. She needed absolute stillness to create—absence of movement and conversation. She relied on a connection between herself and the model that was beyond conversation, beyond words.
In the meantime, there was work to do. And plenty of it. Braynah dipped her brush into the color palette and applied her first stroke to the canvas. How grateful she was that her stroke was still sure, decisive. How grateful she was that her hand didn’t shake, that her grip around the brush was strong, comfortable. Pink, it was. That was the color Braynah chose to begin this portrait of her beloved’s son. In the strawberry shade range. The stillness rose around her. Braynah felt herself surrounded in its luxurious embrace.
About the Author – Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub ( www.yataub.net ) is the author of the collection of short stories Prodigal Children in the House of G-d (2018) and six books of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music by Michał Gorczyński, was released in 2014. Taub was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. With co-translator Ellen Cassedy, he is the recipient of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize and the 2014-2017 Modern Language Association’s Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016). Taub‘s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Hamilton Stone Review, Junto Magazine, Marathon Literary Review, Oyster River Pages, Second Hand Stories Podcast, and Verdad Magazine.
Did you like this fiction story by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub? Then checkout his other story, “Stilettos by a Gravestone.”
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