Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Not a Proper Evacuee

4th September 1939.

Auntie Win never says anything nice to me.  It’s always “Joyce, take your elbows off the table.”  “Joyce, don’t talk with your mouth full.”  I don’t want to go and live with her in Brimley, but I suppose I must.

“You’re so lucky to have an aunt living in Essex,” my mother says, as we’re travelling up on the train.  “You might’ve been evacuated.”

I nod.

When she opens the door to us, Auntie Win’s wearing her bright blue district nurse’s uniform, ‘sensible’, black, lace-up shoes and wrinkled flesh-coloured stockings on her thick legs.  “Expected you half an hour ago.  I have to go out.  One of my patients has had a fall.  I’ve made you tea.”  She waves her hand at a brown pot with minute white chips on its spout. 

Moments later she’s swinging her leg over her bicycle and jingling her bell at a dog in the road, leaving us in the ill lit kitchen, me counting the faded black and white quarry tiles on the floor and trying to ignore the stale cabbage smell seeping up my nostrils.  My mother smooths her silk dress and brushes the wicker seat of her chair before she sits down.  I expect her to make her usual Auntie Win comments, about droopy skirts and outside lavatories, but, over the past few months, as war with Germany became more likely every hour, my parents have stopped saying this sort of thing.  

We’re unpacking my suitcase in the little room where I am to sleep when we become aware of the hum of conversation and revving of engines in the street below.  I step over to the window.  “Buses,” I cry.  “Red London buses.”  I pull my mother, shaking her head, to the tiny casement.  “Honestly.  Look.  It says ‘London Transport’ on them.”  I want to add, “Aren’t they splendid?  Aren’t they spiffing?” but then I think that would be a funny thing to say about buses.

My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs. 

It takes me a moment realise that there’s something wrong about these ordinary red Route Masters, lined up behind each other as if in a queue.  All the passengers are children.  They’re tumbling off the landing platforms like ants, clutching gas masks in cardboard boxes and carrying brown paper parcels bundled up with string. 

Turning away, my mother stoops down to examine her face in the looking-glass.  “From the East End, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Proper evacuees, with brown luggage labels tied around their necks.  Even though the sun has been shining down upon us all day, a reminder that summer is not yet over, and, earlier, my little bedroom seemed stiflingly hot, a shiver jolts down my spine.  This war is really happening.

“Joyce, don’t stare.”  My mother beckons me away from the window with a jerk of her head .  “You be careful around those East Enders.  Remember that you live in a nice house in Friern Barnet.  And that your father’s the manager at the bank.”

“Yes, Mummy.”

“What’s the time?”  My mother raises her wrist to her nose, and squints at her tiny silver-framed watch.  She says that glasses don’t suit her.  Picking up her handbag, she reaches over to kiss my cheek.  “I’d better take the four thirty-two, darling.  Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight.  You’ll be all right until Auntie Win comes home, won’t you?” 

I gulp in a short breath.  I want to scream, “Please don’t,” and “Please, please, please… take me home,” but I’m twelve.  I force a smile.  Wartime spirit and all that.

After she’s left, I continue to watch the buses.  I wonder if I could stow away under one of the seats and I carry on thinking about this long after they’ve revved up and driven off, around the corner and out of sight.  For a moment, I still hear their clattering engines… then nothing, only the shopkeeper over the road retracting his blind.  If only I were fourteen.  Fourteen year olds are allowed to stay in my wonderful London.  If only we had relatives in America, like my friend, Eileen.  She’s sailing on the Queen Mary tomorrow.  Lucky thing. 

Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.

* * * * *

6th September 1939

I’ve started at Brimley School for Girls.  The buildings are old, with long corridors painted grass green and mustard yellow, hardly any playground, no tennis courts or hockey pitches, or anything like we had at my old school.  There are so many of us in the form room that some pupils have to share a desk, or even kneel on the floor.  The village girls have bagged all the places on one side of the room and the evacuees, all from Deptford, the other side.  I sit at a single desk at the middle, in front of a pillar, beside me pipes which gurgle like someone being sick.

When Miss Clough asks us to introduce ourselves, I’m last.  “Joyce Harper, Miss,” I say.  “From Friern Barnet Ladies’ Academy.” 

Someone behind me sniggers. 

* * * * *

5th October

Everyone at school keeps calling me ‘Friern Barnet’.  The Deptford girls started it.  They say I talk posh and I’m stuck up.  I don’t and I’m not.    

I’ve just spoken to Mummy from the telephone box down the road.  I asked her about coming home, just for a weekend, but she won’t let me.  It’s not fair.  The Germans haven’t dropped any bombs in London.  I didn’t tell her anything about school, of course.  She’s doing war work, knitting for the WRVS, and Daddy’s an air raid warden.  

Auntie Win’s listening to ‘The News’ on the wireless when I get back, but then the announcer’s voice fades out and that horrid Lord Haw-Haw comes on.  It’s disgusting the way he talks.  Nobody knows who he is, or even if he’s one person or several.  His accent’s British, though.

Afterwards, I feel cold inside, as if icy water is running through my veins.  Auntie Win makes more cocoa.  She makes very good cocoa.  We don’t talk about Lord Haw-Haw.  We don’t talk much at all.  She reads the newspaper and I do my homework.

* * * * *

26th October

They’re calling me names again.  They stopped for a few days and now they’ve started again.  It’s my own fault, I suppose.  I mentioned my old school again during algebra.  I’m not a tell-tale, but I did speak to Miss Clough this morning and she was jolly decent.  This afternoon, she’s sent me out of class with a message for the headmistress’s secretary, and, when I go back in, she’s saying, “We must just call her ‘Joyce’.  That’s her name.” 

* * * * *

31st October

Nothing goes right for me.

It’s all over the papers that Lord Haw-Haw’s name is ‘William Joyce’.  The girls in my class are following me around, chanting, “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”.  I hate them all.  The rotten thing is that, when Marjorie and Tilly come over at break this morning, I think they want to be friends and I smile at them, but immediately they start.  “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”.  I hate them.  I hate them all so much.

I go back to Auntie Win’s and she’s moaning about clothes left on my bedroom floor.  “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

I’ve had enough.  I’ll tidy my bedroom, all right.  I’ll tidy it so she won’t know I’ve ever been here.

* * * * *

31 October, later.

Auntie Win’s using the outside lavatory when I’m lugging my suitcase downstairs, bumping it over each step, one by one.  So much noise and I can’t help it.  I’m afraid of damaging the case, or the catch bursting open.  I slip out the front door, but don’t slam it shut.  I’ve 5s 2d in my purse.  That’s going to be enough, surely.  I trundle down the street, dragging my heavy suitcase.  I never realised how uneven the Brimley pavement is, and the handles on my case are really hurting my hands.  I have to keep swapping from left to right, but, like the poster says, I carry on.  Into the station booking office at last.  “Single to Liverpool Street, please.”  Ah, the music of those words. 

“Six shillings,” mutters the booking clerk, as I empty the contents of my purse on to the counter.

I push my coins towards him, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies, halfpennies and farthings.  I look up at him, studying the lines on his face and his sprouting eyebrows.  He’s smiling.  I’m sure he’s a nice man.  He’s got to be a nice man.  No, he’s not.  He’s shaking his head.  “But…” I plead.

“Six shillings, Miss.”

“Pleeaase.”

“Six shillings to you.  Same as everybody else.”  Calling “Yes?” over my head, to the soldier in uniform, he shoves my coins back across the wooden counter.

The Deptford girls – the real evacuees – would have argued the toss with a C’monnn Misterrrr

I’m Joyce, from Friern Barnet.  And still in Brimley. 

I trudge back through the village, past the Co-op, the church, my school, and all the other horrible, dreary buildings.  It’s autumn now.  Dusk is falling and, with the blackout, it goes dark fast.  Only the fish and chip shop gives out a faint glow.  Mummy says, you can never get the smell of chip fat out of your clothes.

Ten minutes later, I’m staring at the leaded fanlight over Auntie Win’s porch, papered over in accordance with wartime regulations.  I lift my hand to knock.  I’ll do it.  In a minute.

A piercing sound like splitting wood has me staggering backwards.  The front door, swollen with October damp, rips open.  My aunt, a yellow cardigan over her blue nurse’s dress, hovers in the doorway, her hand on the lintel.  Her complexion, never beautiful like my mother’s, is drained of any colour, except for suddenly prominent freckles and pink broken veins.

“Joyce.  Thank God.”  Then she reaches out for my arm and pulls me inside, as if removing me from imminent danger.

“I…” 

“Your mother… What could I have said?”  Her eyes light on my suitcase.  She cannot tear them away.

“I’ll… I’ll take it upstairs.” I’m speaking so low I can hardly hear myself.  

“I’ll make some cocoa.”

With my hurting hands, striped red and white, I drag my belongings back to my room.  She calls up to me three times, even though I remain in my room only to remove my outdoor shoes – not allowed in her house.  I sit at the kitchen table, once more counting the black and white quarry tiles, aware of her moving about and making cocoa, but not daring to look at her.  “I’m afraid you do have to stay here, Joyce,” says Auntie Win, as she hands my cup to me. 

I take a gulp of steaming chocolate froth.  It scalds my throat.  “I know.”

She sips her own, swallowing loudly.  Usually, she’s a tea person. “Your bedroom… it wasn’t too untidy.  I shouldn’t have said anything.  I’m sorry.”

What did she just say?  I shuffle in my seat. 

“I’m a nurse.  I’m afraid I expect everything to look like a hospital.”

“I’ll make all tidy when I put it everything back.”  Grown-ups don’t apologise to children.  It’s not the proper thing.

“Thank you.”  She sits back in her chair, sliding forwards as if she’s lying on it.  “Now, tell me. How are things at school?”

“All right.”

“Really?  Unless things have changed a lot since my day, girls can be absolutely horrible.” 

Her kind tone almost makes me cry, but I hold back, rushing upstairs again, then wishing I hadn’t because I want my cocoa.  She follows me to my room, carrying my cup.  When I do talk, she doesn’t put her arm around me and stroke my hair like Mummy would, just sits beside me on my bed.  She already knew, of course.  People talk in villages.

“Pity you mentioned the ‘Ladies Academy’ bit,” she says.

“It’s what my school’s called.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“I’m not stuck up.”

“I know, but think about how it sounds to other people.”  She grabs her handbag.  “With all this going on, I haven’t put tea on.  Let’s buy fish and chips.  We’ll sort out those girls.  You see.”

* * * * *

31 October, still.

We’ve been waiting outside the chip shop for some time when Marjorie (from Brimley) and Tilly (from Deptford) join the queue.  “Those two’re in my form,” I whisper to Auntie Win.

“Say hello then.”

“They’re horrid.”

“They’re waving to you.”

I shake my head.

“Come on, Joyce.  Be friendly.  Wave back.”

I don’t want to, but I do, because Auntie Win’s raising her eyebrows and looking at me.

“And smile.”

I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.

An icy wind, straight off the North Sea, whips through my Friern Barnet coat.  Tilly says it’s cold because it blows from Germany.  Tilly can be nice sometimes.  When I get my meal, wrapped up in the Daily Sketch, I clasp it to my chest like a hot water bottle.  “Mummy doesn’t let me eat in the street, but would it be all right if we had a few chips?”

Auntie Win is already unravelling her bundle of newsprint.  “Mum,” she says.  “Mum.”

I frown.  “Mummy wouldn’t like being called Mum.”

“Call her what you like… in Friern Barnet… and don’t eat in the streets… of Friern Barnet.  But this is Brimley and I’m Auntie Win.”

“You and she don’t get along, do you?”

“Of course we do,” my aunt says almost before I’ve got my words out.  She bites off a large piece of fish and chews it slowly.  She nudges me as we’re about to pass Marjorie and Tilly.  “Offer them some chips.”

My arm locks by my side.

“Go on.”

I thrust my bag in front of them.  “Er… would you like a chip.”

Tilly looks at Marjorie, at Auntie Win, at me, at Auntie Win again.    “Watcha,” she giggles, grabbing two.

“Watcha” says Marjorie, taking one.  Marjorie copies everything Tilly says.

“Well done,” mouths Auntie Win as we cross the road.  “Don’t let them see they upset you.”

We’re just finishing our meal when two figures come hurtling up the street, shouting, “Joyce, Joyce!” 

“Have a chip,” pants Tilly, holding out her portion. 

“Would you care for a chip, Nurse Carter,” asks Marjorie.  She stares up at her.  “You looked after my grandma last year, when she had her stroke.”

Auntie Win nods.  “Yes, of course.  How’s Grandma now?”

“Very well, thank you,” says Marjorie.  “Actually, not really.”

“I’ll drop by tomorrow, Marjorie.”

“You can come around with us at break tomorrow, if you want, Joyce.”  Tilly’s voice comes through chewed potato.  She swings on her heel to face Marjorie.  “Can’t she, Marge?”

“Do you think she means it?” I ask my aunt, my face furrowing into a frown as we walk home.

“Only one way to find out.” 

______________________________________________________________________________

Rosemary is returning to short story writing after spending time writing a historical novel.  She was inspired to write this short story after seeing photographs of red London buses bringing evacuees to a town near to where she lives in Essex, England.  She has articles published in Christian Writer and Together.  In real life, Rosemary lives with her husband and cat and teaches IT and maths.  She blogs about writing and everyday life at Write On.

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Little Tiger

 208 B.C.

Eastern China

“They’re coming! The soldiers are here,” the child yelled, banging a stick against the doors as he passed. “Gather your payments.”

Lin leaned out the window of his little workshop. “Don’t play tricks, boy. Serious people have no time for your foolishness.”

“No trick, Old Uncle. The watchman at the gate said so. The Emperor’s men came early.”

A kernel of fear bloomed in Lin’s chest. The soldiers are early! He stared as the child galloped away, bellowing his warning and whacking shutters with his ratty stick. Other craftsmen peered out their windows, grousing at the boy, or, more likely, cursing the approaching soldiers. A harsh clang from a neighbor’s dropped pan snapped Lin out of his stupor. He ducked back into the shop.

His teenage son sat at the work table, sanding a small piece of bamboo. Of course, the boy seemed to be lost, daydreaming, as usual. Lin sighed. He cherished his little tiger, his Xiao Hu, but sometimes he despaired for the boy’s future.

“Xiao Hu, did you not hear? The tax collectors are coming. Go, tell your mother, take the children to the cellar. Hurry!”

Eyes wide, Hu dropped his work. “Yes, Baba,” he said as he bolted toward the back door. “But why are they early?”

Lin shrugged. Perhaps the whispers of rebellion had grown louder. Emperor Qin demanded many arrows as his tax payment. Hard as it was to meet the demand, it still was better than seeing his children conscripted to the army, or forced to toil at the Emperor’s new wall. It didn’t matter why they were early; Lin would pay, regardless.

He scurried to the storeroom to count his stock. As expected, most of the month’s payment was bundled and ready to go. Lin nodded. His status as a favored craftsman carried weight with the tax collectors. They probably would be reasonable about the small shortfall.

Still, the anxiety gripping his heart did not ease until he heard the hushed commotion of his wife and younger children bustling into the hidden cellar. Safe.

Back in the main room, he surveyed the supplies heaped around the table. Several of the prepared feathers were too large, so Lin slid into his son’s abandoned seat, sweeping the defective feathers away. He frowned at the boy’s impatience. Just last night, Lin had explained yet again the importance of precision in their work.

“This is how we maintain our rank, our family position,” he’d intoned, “with arrows that fly true.”

Lin had demonstrated, placing a freshly-cut goose feather on the scale, and nodded as it balanced. The next feather was too heavy, so Lin carved away a bit of the mottled quill and weighed it again. Perfect. “This is my legacy to you.”

Hu had rolled his eyes. “No one else bothers to weigh everything.”

Lin grimaced at the memory. There was no hope for the boy.

A cacophony of clattering hooves and squeaking cart wheels signaled the soldiers’ arrival. Lin lurched to his feet, made clumsy by a fresh burst of adrenaline.Little Tiger

            “Your tax ready?” the soldier demanded as he shoved the door open. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating nonetheless, with his padded shirt and stiff leather shoes. He smelled of sweat.

“Yes, yes. The arrows are bundled, as required.”

“All of them?”

“Almost all. Forgive me, but, I thought they were not due for another week.”

The tax collector grunted. He scowled, scrutinizing the workroom, just as Hu burst back in. The boy froze at the sight of the soldier.

“Not now,” Lin hissed, silently cursing his son’s rash behavior. “Go!”

“Wait,” the soldier interrupted. “Today we collect workers for the wall, as well as taxes. This young man would make up for your incomplete payment.”

“No.” Lin stepped in front of his son. Voice quivering, he continued, “This boy can serve the Emperor better here, making the finest arrows for his army.”

“I thought you were the arrow maker, old man.”

“My son also knows the way of the arrow. He will benefit the empire well, long after I have passed.”

The soldier studied Hu. “Prove it, boy.”

Lin’s breath caught, but his little tiger nodded and stepped up to the work table. Hu’s hands trembled only slightly as he chose a feather from the pile and placed it on the scale. He explained how the weight of the feather had to interact precisely with the heft of the arrowhead. He reached for the piece of wood he’d been toying with earlier, showing the soldier how the bamboo shaft must be dried and sanded, just so, to provide strength, yet retain flexibility. Finally, he demonstrated the placement of the feathers, to minimize drag while promoting spin.

“This is why our arrows fly faster and bite more deeply into our enemies,” Hu said as he notched the final quill into the shaft.

Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.

The soldier inspected the completed arrow, and then grunted, apparently satisfied. He took the remaining bundles from the storeroom, nodding toward Hu as he left the shop.

Lin stared after the departing tax collector for a heartbeat and then collapsed onto his bench. He released a tremulous breath, contemplating his son, who now was twirling a feather between his fingers and grinning. Lin could only shake his head.

______________________________________________________________________________

Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Daily Science FictionDead Housekeeping, and Akashic Books’ short fiction series. Read more at mynachang.com.  

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To Be an Aclla

“Achi?”

She held her hand up until it was lit by the moonlight coming through the crack to the side of the curtain and clutched her blanket up under her chin with her other hand. She stared at her hand, turning it in the light. It was the full moon, but that meant nothing now. The people of the sun slept when the sun slept, and Cuzco was silent.

Achiyaku dropped her hand at the whisper.

“Can’t you sleep? Is it too bright?”

Alliyma had a good heart, but Achiyaku could have laughed at the misunderstanding.

“No, go back to sleep. It was a long day.”

Alliyma mumbled something sleepily in reply, but Achiyaku didn’t hear. Her younger sister was soon asleep.

 It had been a long day, but she felt awake. It was the first ploughing, and they had been brewing chicha beer for weeks to prepare. They had left the acllawasi for the occasion, and she had hidden the unease she always felt upon leaving, upon seeing that she was surrounded by lower Cuzco, by the inner mountains that had once seemed so far. Not that Cuzco wasn’t a marvel—its gold blinding in the sun, its Inca nobles walking the paved streets in their rich robes and jewellery, its grand plazas and palaces things to be gawked at—but to Achiyaku the splendour only made her feel emptier. It was far too easy to look beyond the small city toward the foreign houses nestled above on the hill and below on the plain, to the mountain peaks stretching into the distance beyond the terraced hillsides. It was far too easy to look, and be reminded that she couldn’t see far enough to see the ocean.

It had been two years. It was a lifetime and more, and yet sometimes the past still haunted her, an ache that held her back from being the same as her sisters. The others had all arrived earlier, around ten years old, and they had all come from cities long claimed by the Inca’s empire. At fourteen, Achiyaku was the age of some of the younger priestesses, and soon everything could change all over again. Would her weaving skills, the best in her acllawasi, make her a priestess? Or would she be married away?

“Maybe a warrior will take you away and marry you as a second wife! …If he isn’t picky, that is,” Ninasisa had taunted, throwing her head back with a laugh. She was beautiful—they all were, really, it was part of how they were chosen—but Ninasisa’s beauty was like that of the sun: dazzling and glaring. Fittingly, “Ninasisa” meant “fire flower”, a name she had been born to. Achiyaku, as an outsider, had been renamed when she had arrived. It had seemed cruel, when she had learned enough of Quechua to understand that “Achiyaku” meant “clear water”, that she had been named for water by the very people who had taken her from it.

Ninasisa, as a noblewoman of Cuzco and thus one of the Inca ethnic group, would be married strategically to some other noble, but Achiyaku worried about her own fate. She had had enough of change for one lifetime, had only just become comfortable in the routines of this House of the Sun. She knew what life was like here: day in and day out they stayed in the compound, leaving only for ceremonies, and did weaving, spinning, brewing, worshipping, and cleaning. Sometimes she even felt that she loved it, but on other days she felt like she was suffocating, disappearing along with her memories into the confines of this houseIf she married she would be free of this place, but at what cost? What if she married one of the very warriors who had taken down her kingdom, her home, once the last great rival of the Inca’s empire?

Achiyaku turned her head to look at the doorway and focussed on taking slow, steady breaths even as her heart flew. She could see the stone of the small, interior courtyard beneath the curtain, white in the moonlight. She had been taught by the Inca to worship the sun, and she could understood why they revered it in the same way that she could understand why Ninasisa drew everyone’s eye while Achiyaku was overlooked. But she understood other things too. That there was always another side than the bright one, as shown in the symmetry of the great Staff God’s very form: one staff to compliment the other, just as there is night to every day, the sky for the earth, the ebb for the flow of the great ocean’s tide. Her people of the Chimor Empire had always worshipped the moon, for unlike the sun it could be seen in both the day and the night and could pull at the very ocean itself. The adobe walls of the compounds and ciudedelas of her old home, the capital of Chan Chan, had been decorated with pictures of the waves and the creatures of the sea, but here people only looked up. Up to the mountains around them, and higher, to the skies above.

Achiyaku tried to clear her thoughts, to forget as she had so many times before. Normally everything that happened in the House of the Chosen Women was enough to keep her too busy to think—the friends and enemies, the priestesses and newcomers, the work—but perhaps it was the influence of the full moon.

“When the moon is full,” her mother had told her once, long ago, as they had been weaving together, “we are in the hands of the Goddess. On those nights we become like the sea, pushed and pulled by Her tide.

Was she still pushed and pulled by that tide? Did the Goddess still see her? Did she think she had abandoned her? Achiyaku pressed a hand to her chest. She had not wanted to. The Sun and his children had given her a life of luxury and honour, she who had once been a commoner, who had never even laid eyes on food as rich as what she now cooked, who had never hoped to own textiles as intricate as were now her normal garb, but they had taken her from her people. She was no longer one of the Chimù, her ayllu group was not her own. On the day she had left Chan Chan and journeyed up into the highlands and then south, so far south along the royal road to Cuzco, she had lost everything she had once been, and become something she still didn’t understand.

Achiyaku had been one of the only commoners they had taken—one of the only ones they thought pretty enough—and she had not known the nobles she had made the trek with. Some of them had been sent to other acllawasi—most were far more secluded than hers—but she and some others had been sent to Cuzco itself, to more fully tie the newly defeated Chimor empire to the Inca empire, and to make her an example for her people. But, she wondered, would her people even recognise her now, or she them?

Achiyaku closed her eyes and remembered what were now fading images. She forgot the stonework and saw cane and mud brick walls again. She forgot the channelled rivers and saw the great wells, remembered walking down their ramps to fetch water. She remembered the smell of salt on the wind, the deep river valleys and the dry desert plains. She remembered how the city stretched on and on in every direction, farther than she could ever have walked, and the cramped rooms of her neighbourhood. She remembered her father and brothers working with metals, her mother’s lessons, her mother’s smile. She heard the noise of the streets busy with tens of thousands of people, saw the labyrinth of the walls and their motifs of the sea reminding her always of the ocean, so near. She remembered a name, a different name, spoken by those she had loved. She remembered belonging.

In a small stone room in Cuzco, an aclla lay among her sisters, a shaft of moonlight slanting across her sleeping form.

______________________________________________________________________________

Frances Koziar is a Middle American archaeologist specializing in Aztec human sacrifice and ontology. She has non-academic publications in 10+ literary magazines and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author

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