Cormac McCarthy & the Ironwork Elm
The Dark Novels of an Enigmatic Writer Show Signs of Embedded Grace
The critics were mystified. Who was this writer from the hills of Tennessee who could write such arresting landscapes?
A warm wind on the mountain and the sky darkening, the clouds looping black underbellies until a huge ulcer folded out of the mass and a crack like the earth's core rending rattled panes from Winkle Hollow to Bay's Mountain. And the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth's turning and then that too ceased and with a clatter and hiss out of the still air a plague of ice.
And why did he people such landscapes with men like this:
A man much to himself. Drinkers gone to Kirby's would see him on the road by night, slouched and solitary, the rifle hanging in his hand as if it were a thing he could not get shut of.
He'd grown lean and bitter.
Some said mad.
A malign star kept him.
This young, unknown author's first book, The Orchard Keeper, revealed a remarkable talent for local color, but there were problems. The scattered narrative of that novel seems to come to no conclusion other than that these people who once inhabited the hills and mountains are now gone. The New York Times review praised the power of the writing, but remarked that "many of the episodes of savage violence or of rural charm have no connection with each other. This is a jumpy, disconnected narrative."
Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy's next novel, introduces without explanation a rag-poor, incestuous brother and sister. The sister sets off in search of their lost baby, and, after a time, the brother follows. The fruitless searches of the parted brother and sister go on and on, and nothing much comes of their wanderings but the death of the child.
Years later, the brother meets a blind wanderer tapping along a dirt road "ragged and serene." The blind man stops, makes himself a cigarette, and asks the brother if he needs anything. The stubborn brother says he is in need of nothing, but wonders just what the blind tramp could possibly offer him. The blind man says he prays for what he needs. "You always get what you pray for?" asks the brother. "Yes. I reckon. I wouldn't pray for what wasn't needful. Would you?" "I ain't never prayed," says the brother; "why don't ye pray back your eyes?" The blind man answers, "I believe it'd be a sin. Them old eyes can only show ye what's done there anyways. If a blind man needed eyes he'd have eyes." They part and wander on and that's about the end of the book.
Critics and readers were again mystified. Author and Harvard professor Robert Coles remarked that McCarthy's "stubborn refusal to bend his writing to the literary and intellectual demands of our era conspire at times to make him seem mysterious and confusing."
Then came Child of God, in which a necrophilic serial murderer wanders the back roads and forests wigged with a woman's scalp. The critics liked the vivid writing, but couldn't lay a hand on the writer's purposes. Robert Leiterin Commonweal noted that "we are left with only incisive images strung along a thin plot line, the why and wherefore unexplained."
And Cormac McCarthy would not grant interviews to explain his work. "We lived in total poverty," said his second wife. "We were bathing in a lake. Someone would call and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week." He seemed in some ways like his characters: reclusive, strange, and poor. He was kicked out of a $40-a-month motel in New Orleans for nonpayment. At one point he moved into an old barn with his wife, determined to keep on writing.
The early novels, though published by Random House and edited by William Faulkner's longtime editor Albert Erskine, sold poorly. Still, he had his advocates: historian and novelist Shelby Foote strongly defended him in a letter to the editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar and recommended him later to the MacArthur Fellowship award committee, the so-called genius grant that McCarthy won along with a whole series of other literary awards, culminating in the Pulitzer prize for his novel The Road. Writers liked him.
But what were readers to make of these dark, desolate, unexplained characters? Robert Coles, in a long review for the New Yorker wrote: "He is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning." It seems Coles was onto something.
In the books that followed, religious icons began appearing. Having noted the blind man of faith who appears and as quickly disappears in Outer Dark, I noticed a strange scene in his fourth novel, Suttree, the story of a young man who has left his well-to-do family to live on a derelict houseboat moored to the bank of the Tennessee River. Cornelius Suttree is an actual protagonist, a young man with a moral sensibility. He lives among the outcasts and eccentrics in the bars and poolrooms and fish markets. He befriends losers, he cares for impoverished friends, he works with his hands, he wanders the mountains alone; he tries to find his way.
About halfway through the book, Suttree steps into the church attached to the school he attended as a boy: "A thousand hours or more he's spent in this sad chapel. Spurious acolyte, dreamer impenitent. Before this tabernacle where the wise high God himself lies sleeping in his golden cup." The young, self-exiled vagrant recalls the teacher nuns: "Grim and tireless in their orthopedic moralizing. Filled with tales of sin and unrepentant deaths and visions of hell and stories of levitation and possession and dogmas of semitic damnation for the tacking up of the paraclete." Suttree despises the nuns and their melodramatic moralizing (which is not to say McCarthy despises them, but it might not be a stretch to assume it; he attended parochial schools in his youth). Suttree then falls asleep on a pew, and the priest shakes him gently and tells him, "God's house is not exactly the place to take a nap." Suttree responds, "It's not God's house," and the "dreamer impenitent" walks out.
This episode makes the iconic scene at the end of the book so surprising: Suttree is finally leaving Knoxville, going he knows not where. With his cardboard suitcase and cheap new clothes, he stands by the highway trying to thumb a ride. The day is very hot and he stands for hours, his new shirt getting soaked with sweat. Across the highway, construction workers are scraping the bed for a new highway, and Suttree watches as a blond boy with a bucket and dipper takes water to the workers. The boy looks across the old highway and sees Suttree standing there alone in the summer heat. They nod to each other, and the boy turns and looks toward the road.
Then he was coming down across the clay and over the ruts and laddered tracks of machinery. His dusty boots left prints across the black macadam and he came up to Suttree where he stood by the roadside and swung the bucket around and brought the dipper up all bright and dripping and offered it. Suttree could see the water beading coldly on the tin and running in tiny rivulets and drops that steamed on the road where they fell. He could see the pale gold hair that lay along the sunburned arms of the waterbearer like new wheat and he beheld himself in the child's blue eyes that had no bottoms like the sea. He took the dipper and drank and gave it back. The boy dropped it into the bucket. Suttree wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Thanks, he said.
A cup of cold water. A waterbearer. New wheat. What are we to make of this? These are biblical images, so we might see the waterbearer as some sort of religious icon, maybe even a Christ-figure, especially when contrasted with what comes next and ends the book: a driver stops to pick up Suttree while he's drinking the boy's water. Suttree is not lifting his hand to thumb down a ride, so the ride itself is an unexpected gift, as is the cup of cold water. He climbs into the car, and as the driver pulls away, looks back. The waterboy is gone. "An enormous lank hound had come out of the meadow by the river like a hound from the depths and was sniffing at the spot where Suttree had stood."
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.
These are the author's final words, not Suttree's.
A "hound from the depths." And beyond the hunting hound, the dark hunter of souls himself, whose work lies everywhere, in the countryside and in the cities. Suttree seems to have just escaped. Perhaps the "wise high God himself sleeping in his golden cup" has been more attentive than young Suttree has supposed.
This brings us to McCarthy's next book, the famous Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. A fourteen-year-old boy runs away from rural Tennessee and heads west, to New Orleans, then on, "walking the sand roads of the southern night alone, his hands balled in the cotton pockets of his cheap coat." He sees and confronts violence. He works for day wages and moves on. Caught in a downpour in Nacogdoches, he slips beneath the canvas of a revival tent and listens to a preacher, the Reverend Green, tell about a man he tried to save (McCarthy is not fond of many punctuation marks, including quotation marks, and he capitalizes the words he chooses):
Neighbors, he couldnt stay out of these here hell, hell, hellholes right here in Nacogdoches. I said to him, said: You goin to take the son of God in there with ye? And he said: Oh no. No I aint. And I said: Don't you know what he said I will foller ye always even unto the end of the road?
Well, he said, I aint askin nobody to go nowhere. And I said: Neighbor, you dont need to ask. He's a goin to be there with ye ever step of the way whether ye ask it or ye dont. I said: Neighbor, you caint get shed of him. Now. Are you going to drag him, him, into that hellhole yonder?
Just then a strange man walks into the tent and removes his hat. He is enormous, dressed in a dripping rainslicker,
bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close to seven feet in height and he stood smoking a cigar even in this nomadic house of God and he seemed to have removed his hat only to chase the rain from it for now he put it on again.
The Reverend Green stops talking, and the enormous, hairless man strides forward, turns to the crowd, and immediately accuses the minister of being an illiterate imposter wanted in several states. The poor Reverend Green cries out, "Lies, lies!" and commences reading his Bible aloud to disprove the man, but the judge, for that's the name the bald man goes by, continues his accusations, including "the most recent of which involved a girl of eleven years—I said eleven—who had come to him in trust and whom he was surprised in the act of violating while actually in the livery of his God." A moan sweeps the crowd. A woman faints. Men start to shout that they'll kill the imposter minister, the meeting breaks into chaos, and the minister is driven out. The accusatory judge slips away into the rainy night.
Of course, the "accuser of the brethren" in Scripture is a name for Satan. And the judge was lying; he is violent, charming, educated, something of a research scientist, a leader of men, a killer and chaos creator. The Reverend Green, before being driven out, had cried out, "This is him! This is him. The devil. Here he stands." And he was right. Judge Holden is the devil, but with one arresting restriction: he is also a physical human being, literally the devil incarnate. Throughout the novel, he suffers thirst and hunger and sunburn, and he must walk or travel by horse; he is not a wandering spirit who on occasion takes physical form. He is both fully devil and fully man, but unlike the Son of God Incarnate, he avoids death; it's not on his agenda, though at times he comes very close to being killed.
The nameless boy, usually referred to as "the kid," meets him again, this time riding with an American bounty hunter named Glanton, an actual historical man who led a band of desperadoes paid by the state governments in northern Mexico to bring back Apache scalps. And the judge is "foremost among them, outsized and childlike with his naked face. . . . His cheeks were ruddy and he was smiling and bowing to the ladies and doffing a filthy hat. The enormous dome of his head when he bared it was blinding white."
The judge does terrible things: a murderer, he kills his longtime companions; a pedophile, he captures a little Apache boy, at first treats him kindly, then takes him away in the night and murders him, after which the huge, grotesque man dances wild and naked in the night. He steps through a fire "and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element."
The kid rides with the judge and the scalpers deep into Apache country, where they wreak havoc on men, women, and children. Eventually the hideous band starts killing and scalping more accessible peaceful Indians and even Mexicans, for who can tell whose black-haired scalp it is? A former priest who rides with them tells the kid that the judge "has been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages." The judge is also, like the devil in American folklore, a fiddler: "He's the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that's an end of it. The greatest. He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer."
He is also a scientist: an anthropologist, geologist, paleontologist, and a chemist who makes gunpowder. After examining and discussing the historical relevance of a found bone, he remarks, "There is no mystery to it. Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery"—by which statement he tries
to erase religion and claims the supremacy of science.
For a time, the kid, now grown to manhood, escapes the deadly judge and wanders the West. "He never saw the expriest again. Of the judge he heard rumor everywhere." Then, years later, he rides into a frontier town supported by hundreds of bonepickers who construct heaps of buffalo bones and cart them away on creaking wagons across the west Texas plains. There he meets the judge one last time, and the bald giant "seemed little changed or none in all these years." The judge recognizes the kid and pours him a whisky: "Drink up, he said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee."
The kid says, "You aint nothing." The judge replies, "You speak truer than you know." (As St. Augustine tells us, evil is parasitic, feeding on the good, dependent upon and corrupting the truth, but having no real substance itself.) A dancing bear is shot in the dancehall and dies in a large pool of blood, and the judge says this is part of a planned ceremony, for blood is a necessary part of the ritual. The judge never sleeps. He says he'll never die.
If God is elusive in these novels, evil is not. McCarthy's world—and, we might argue, the real world—is rife with it. Evil is firmly imbedded in human life. Looking back to The Orchard Keeper, this seems to have been McCarthy's very first message to his readers. In an independent, one-page story that precedes the novel, three men have cut down an elm tree growing along a wrought-iron line of fencing and are crosscutting the tree into lengths. Cutting near the base, the sawteeth strike metal. One man "took hold of the twisted, wrought-iron, the mangled fragment of the fence, and shook it. It didn't shake. It's growed all through the tree, the man said. . . . The Negro was nodding his head. Yessa, he said. It most sholy has. Growed all up in that tree." This is an interesting way to put it, for of course it's the tree that has grown up around the fence, but both men put it the other way: the iron has "growed all through the tree." Evil, we might say, has grown and imbedded itself in the natural tree.
The Border Trilogy
The trilogy McCarthy wrote next, beginning with All the Pretty Horses, has violence and enough evil to fill a landscape, but the boy in the first and third books (Cities of the Plain), John Grady Cole, is a pretty good kid—caught by betrayal and loss, but a young man who has a heart, and who meets others with heart, usually working poor who care for him in his need.
There are many serious issues at stake in these books: loyalty and friendship, empathetic souls and hard souls, fate and free will, guilt and goodness. At various times throughout the trilogy, the boy protagonists encounter wandering truth-seekers who examine the world and ponder the mysteries of reality and its relation to history, and who speak of God and his relation to us. An older aunt of the girl John Grady Cole loves tells him, "The question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. Because otherwise we are nothing." She doesn't believe in blind fate, but in an endless succession of deciding agents. She says,
I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there were not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change.
This is both an argument for free will and for the meaning of one's life arising from the decisions of one's soul. John Grady makes a number of foolish decisions, but he is very much "a person of value," and this value is based not on the attainment of his quest, for there he fails, but on his daily moral decisions.
In the second book of the trilogy, The Crossing, a young man named Billy Parham ropes a she-wolf and drags her off to Mexico to release her in the mountains. Along the way, he stops in an earthquake-ruined village, where a man calls to him from a ruined church. When Billy asks the old man why he lives alone in this wrecked village, the man tells him, "I was seeking evidence for the hand of God in the world. I had come to believe that hand a wrathful one and I thought that men had not inquired sufficiently into miracles of destruction. . . . I could not believe He would destroy his own church without reason."
The old man goes on to tell a long story (17 pages in the novel) that, we might therefore assume, is of some importance. It's the story of another old man who fought with God throughout his life, though he continued to believe in God. The people of the village called for a priest, who visited the old man and spoke to him "of the meaning of grace in men's lives and the old man heard him out and nodded his head," then shouted at the priest that he knew nothing! The priest took this rebuke to heart and began rethinking his way. This priest was, says the storyteller,
a man of broad principles. Of liberal sentiments. Even a generous man. Something of a philosopher. . . . He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest. He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees. Even the stones were sacred. He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart."
But there was not, says the storyteller, who then admits that he himself is that priest.
Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair.
He tells Billy, "In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his Grace." There's much more to this long monologue, some of it complex and difficult to sort out, and Billy makes no attempt to sort it out. He mounts up and rides away.
It's clear that at this stage in his writing, McCarthy is willing to take up religious issues head-on. McCarthy has complained about plays and books that say little of life and death. Richard Woodward, writing for the New York Times, says that McCarthy's "list of 'good writers'—Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner—precludes anyone who doesn't 'deal with issues of life and death.' Proust and Henry James don't make the cut." For McCarthy,serious works must address the serious issues of life, and what is more serious than eternal life, eternal death? In this trilogy of quests, the search for God and the meaning of life keeps flashing like fish to the troubled
Which brings us to McCarthy's Pulitzer prize-winning, post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Punishment has come at last for the wickedness already chronicled in McCarthy's works. And it has fallen with cataclysmic vengeance: the whole country, likely the whole earth, has been wrecked irretrievably by a nuclear holocaust. Amid the devastation, a boy and his father are wandering in a grey, ash-choked world of blood cults, cannibals, and the occasional haggard, filthy refugee. The sun never shines. The sky is never blue. Nothing grows. Birds and animals are only a memory.
One night, the father lies watching his boy beside their campfire. "Look around you," he says. "There is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right." And so the father affirms the prophets who warned of judgment and calamity.
But in all this murk and ash and cold and hunger there flickers one consistent light. The boy. This unnamed boy is kind, selfless, and compassionate. Though starving, he is willing to give away his own meager food to refugees; he even insists on it when his father refuses. The father says of his boy, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." And in the context, this does not seem blasphemous. This boy is, in fact, innocent and good. An image of God. On a freezing night, the father washes the boy's hair in an icy stream, wraps him in a blanket and puts him by the fire. He tousles the boy's hair to dry it. "All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them." Later, the father sits beside the sleeping boy and strokes his pale and tangled hair: "Golden chalice, good to house a god."
And there again, after all these books, the image of the chaliced, sleeping god rises again. This boy, obedient to his father in terrible times, this boy so giving, so caring, so respectful, so uncomplaining, is a word of God made flesh, if not the Word of God made flesh. He surely is a Christ-figure, baptized and anointed, in communion with his often-forgiven father.
They walk on, "treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold." At one point, the man raises his eyes and sees his boy standing "in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle": a place to house a god. As the man sickens and weakens, he watches the boy coming through the grass. The boy kneels "with the cup of water he'd fetched. There was light all about him. He took the cup and drank and lay back. . . . [The boy] took the cup and moved away and when he moved the light moved with him." The waterbearer has returned. The fire keeper is here.
The father tells the boy that he has to "carry the fire," and the boy asks if the fire is real. "Yes it is," says the father, and the boy asks, "Where is it? I dont know where it is." The father says, "Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it."
In McCarthy's famous interview with Oprah (after The Road won the Pulitzer and was chosen by Oprah's book club, he finally broke his silence), Oprah tried to push him about his spiritual views, but he brushed her off and said he didn't want to get superstitious. But there can be no doubt that Cormac McCarthy is wrestling with issues religious and moral, with the mysteries of time and life, of God and the devil. Everything he wants to say to the public on these things is, by his own testimony, in these books. He's not trying to brush the reader off.
The Sunset Limited
In McCarthy's 2006 play The Sunset Limited, the plot is explicitly centered on religion. A black ex-con has just rescued a white professor after the professor tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train, the Sunset Limited. The black man has hauled the professor up to his tenement apartment to talk the man out of suicide. Neither man has a name. The dialogue goes back and forth between "black" and "white."
The black man is a convicted criminal who served his time in the penitentiary and found Jesus after a prison fight in which he pounded a man's head to a pulp with a chair leg after the man stabbed him with a switchblade. Afterward, while chained to a hospital bed, he hears a voice:
"Just as clear. Couldnt of been no clearer. And this voice says: If it was not for the grace of God you would not be here. Man. I tried to raise up and look around but of course I couldnt move. Wasnt no need to anyways. They wasnt nobody there. I mean, they was somebody there all right but they wasnt no use in me lookin around to see if I could see him."
The white man rejects all this. He had once believed in the arts, in literature, in culture, but all those things, he has come to see, are fragile, and the culture itself is rejecting them. So he now believes that "the darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore." The world "is basically a forced labor camp from which the workers—perfectly innocent—are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed. I dont think that this is just the way I see it. I think it's the way it is."
The black believer in Jesus is clever. He gets the professor to admit his own hatred of common people, to admit that every day he curses them, proving that the professor does not actually believe in the innocence of the people who are led forth to execution. But the atheist professor is adamant. He will not admit the possibility of God. And the believer is also firm: "I see a different truth. . . . That you must love your brother or die."
The black man tries again and again to keep the professor talking. He feeds him good food, he pours him coffee, he tells him stories. But the professor will not be swayed. He has established his intellect as the prime arbitrator and sees the black believer as an opposing intellect: "You try to understand God," he asserts. "No I dont," says the black man; "I just try and understand what he wants from me." "And that is everything you need," says the professor inquiring. The believer answers, "If God aint everthing you need in a world of trouble. And if what you sayin is that my view of the world is a narrow one I dont disagree with that. Of course I could point out that I aint down on the platform in my leapin costume." He goes on to argue that faith in Jesus is the firm foundation of reality:
"But the unbeliever has got a problem. He has set out to unravel the world, but everthing he can point to that aint true leaves two new things layin there. If God walked the earth when he got done makin it then when you get up in the morning you get to put your feet on a real floor and you don't have to worry about where it come from. But if he didnt then you got to come up with a whole other description of what you even mean by real. . . . Is you real?"
The black man admits he doesn't agree with everything in the Bible—for example, original sin—but he says he's a questioner, not a doubter: "I think the questioner wants the truth. The doubter wants to be told there aint no such thing."
They part at the end with neither persuaded. But I am persuaded that Cormac McCarthy is quite openly laying out these arguments for our consideration and taking the arguments to their logical conclusions, which few modern novelists do. The black man asks the professor, "If I'm understandin you right you sayin that everbody that aint just eat up with the dumb-ass ought to be suicidal." And the professor
McCarthy's later works wrestle with issues that are fundamentally religious: eternal life, fate and free will, guilt and forgiveness, innocence and evil, love of the poor, love even of the arrogant intellectual and the murderer. They introduce characters worth listening to, worth following through their searching quests. There is a lot of violence in these novels, but Flannery O'Connor was also accused of using gratuitous violence in her stories. She answered, "My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil." Whether McCarthy believes, as O'Connor and Walker Percy did, that grace can be effective in such a world is an open question, but he has, seemingly more and more, shifted his fiction toward characters who embody goodness and grace, who are mysterious lights glimmering in an ever-darkening landscape.
In an article for the New York Times called "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" writer and editor Paul Elie ponders the absence of writers like O'Connor and Walker Percy, Dostoevsky and Evelyn Waugh, in the present day. He laments that Christian belief expressed in the literature of our times figures "as something between a dead language and a hangover . . . if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature."
McCarthy's searching novels and plays are an exception. He certainly does not present himself openly as a writer of Christian convictions, but he seems beset by issues of Christian faith. For years he has been drawing strong contrasts between good and evil, grace and greed, faith and nihilism. Whatever he himself believes, he has, at first cautiously, then symbolically, then explicitly, presented us with the most important issues our minds can address. In a literary culture where these arguments have largely been shelved, this is something that matters. His landscapes and people are often dark, and evil "has growed up all through" them, but within the soot and blood and ashes, a fire is burning.
Steven Faulkner teaches creative writing at Longwood University in southern Virginia. He is the author of Waterwalk: A Passage of Ghosts (2007) and Bitterroot: Echoes of Beauty and Loss (2016). Both books are memoirs of father-son journeys that followed the paths of missionary priests: Marquette (in Waterwalk) and De Smet (in Bitterroot).
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