Once Upon a Time in Nepal

The following is based on a true story.  Names of people, places, and animal characters have been changed in compliance with PC policy.

Once upon a time in the middle hills of Nepal – not so long ago, really – there was a small village called Jamlakhola.  The name meant “Twin Rivers” in Nepali, and the village was thusly named owing to the fact that it perched on the steep flank of a hill overlooking the confluence of two small rivers in a wide valley below.  In the rainy season a quilt of lush green rice paddies and ripe yellow maize stretched out over the valley and the water surged along in the two rivers with a soft rushing sound.

Life in Jamlakhola was quiet, and its people were content.  When they weren’t toiling in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons or out in the forest cutting fodder for the goats and buffalos, the men sat in tea shops playing cards and chatting about politics while the women gathered under the shade of a big mango tree and discussed their children and the latest village gossip.  During monsoon, the corn grew high up above their heads and there was always plenty of water to flood the rice paddies and still have enough to cook and clean and drink.  Yes, the people of Jamlakhola were happy – except, that is, for one young man. 

His name was Sushil, and Sushil was, shall we say, different.  He did not like to sit around with the men and play cards and drink tea, and whenever the men would tease him about finding a nice girl to marry, Sushil replied that he was not interested in getting married.  Also, because of a condition which caused his skin to be fairer than the rest of the villagers, he was not allowed to go work out in the sun, because when he did his skin flushed a bright shade of pink, and the people of the village believed that the sun made him sick.  As a result, though the community cared for Sushil, he felt like an outsider.  He spent most of his time alone, reading, which the people of Jamlakhola also found to be highly peculiar behavior.  He read all the books he could get his hands on, books about far-away lands and important ideas and people, and he found himself feeling restless.  He longed to leave his small village, and have an adventure like the characters in his books, and do something worthwhile.  Most of all, though, he simply wanted the people of his village to see that he had value, and was capable of doing all the things they could do.  He would set down his book when he was finished reading, gaze out across the valley at the distant hills and the snowy peaks of the mountains beyond, and sigh.  He felt trapped, and it didn’t seem that he would ever have a chance to escape.

Now, the women of Jamlakhola rose every morning before the sun, even before the first crow of the rooster, and went to fetch water from the tap, the first of their many household chores. It took several trips to bring back enough water for the whole day.  Then they stoked the fire and set water on to boil for tea, then scrubbed down the porch, washed the laundry and hung it up to dry, and when the sun finally peeked up over the hills, blinking the sleep from its great golden eyes, the women would playfully scold it for its laziness. 

One morning, though, the women went to the tap and twisted the nozzle, and were surprised when nothing came out.  This was puzzling, because it was the middle of the month of Saun, the high point of monsoon.  While it had been a drier monsoon than average, there still should have been more than enough water to fill their copper vessels.  What’s more, there had just been a big rain the night before.  The women of Jamlakhola were smart though, and always planned ahead, and so fortunately they had water left over from previous days to boil for tea and cook rice and wash laundry.  Still, they carried their empty water jugs back to their homes, shaking their heads in confusion.  That afternoon, as they sat under the mango tree, all the conversations were about the mysterious lack of water.  What could be the cause?

The next morning, the women returned to the tap, and found it dry once more.  Now they began to be concerned.  There was still a little bit of water, but they would have to do without their afternoon tea, and they wouldn’t be able to wash laundry, and the vegetable curry that evening would have to be dry.  But if this kept up any longer, there would be a problem.  They would have to hike down the steep hillside to the river and carry water back up, as their grandmothers had, and their grandmothers’ grandmothers before them.  The women of Jamlakhola were strong and resilient, and would do what needed to be done, but during monsoon, the path the winded down to the river was slick and treacherous, and carrying up a heavy copper jug filled with a few gallons of water was dangerous.  The tap had been in the village for many years now, and only the oldest, grayest, most wrinkled of the women remembered having to make the difficult trek down to the river to fetch water in the mornings, and they bemoaned their poor fortune loudest of all.  “The Gods must be punishing us,” they whispered, though none of the women in the village could imagine what they had done to so offend the Gods.

When the women returned on the third day to find the tap dry once more, they decided that something must be done.  A group of men volunteered to climb up to the water tank at the top of the hill to investigate the problem.  Sushil volunteered to go as well.  “The path is difficult Sushil, and it might be dangerous walking through the forest.  You should stay here,” they said, but Sushil was resolute.  He wanted to help, and prove his worth.  So the men, chuckling and shaking their heads, agreed to let Sushil come along.

They tramped through the terraced fields, then climbed the steep path up the cliff side. 

“Be careful, Sushil, the path is slippery,” they warned.  Sushil simply sighed and followed the men up the hill. 

They came to the edge of a dense forest, climbing ever upward, and sloshed through the ankle-deep water.  Occasionally, a man would stop to peel a leech off of his foot.

“Watch out for leeches, Sushil.”  Sushil caught a few leeches of his own, and would reach down and pluck them off like the other men.  He tossed the leeches aside and showed the other men that the slimy little black creatures did not bother him any more than they did any of the others, but still the men were fraught with concern whenever they saw that one had clung onto his calf or ankle or between his toes.  “You should go back, Sushil,” they said.  “One of us will walk back with you so you don’t get lost.”  But Sushil insisted that he would continue, and so, reluctantly, the men carried on, cringing every time a leech got hold of Sushil, or whenever he brushed the stinging nettle.

Finally the men came to a small clearing in which there was a waterfall and a large cement tank with plastic pipes poking out of it and running down the mountain in all directions.  They saw immediately what the problem was.  The pipe that directed water from the tank to Jamlakhola was missing, and water was gushing out through the gap where the pipe once was, flooding the ground around the tank and turning it into a soggy marsh.

“Where could the pipe have gone?” cried the men, looking this way and that for any trace of it.  A jumbled murmur arose as they were all clamoring at once about the missing pipe.

Suddenly, a loud screech cut through the din of their voices, and the men all looked up to see a monkey swinging wildly from branch to branch through the trees, until he came to rest on a low hanging branch above the water tank.  It was Kumar Baandar*, a notorious prankster.  He wore a grin from ear to ear, and was tauntingly shaking something long and black in his right hand.  The men realized that it was the missing length of pipe, and they all began to shout at once.  Then the village headman stepped forward and angrily called up to the mischievous monkey, “You rotten thief!  Give us that pipe!  We need it to provide water to our village.”

The monkey just smirked wider and howling with laughter replied, “Just climb up here and take it from me, if you want it so badly.”

The men fumed.  Though they were all skilled climbers, none of them could reach the branch from which Kumar Baandar was hanging, and the trunk of the tree stood on the other side of the waterfall.  It would be too dangerous to try to walk across.

“Please,” called out the headman, softening his tone a bit.  “Without the water from this tank, the women of our village will have to make a long and dangerous trek every morning down to collect water from the river.  In the old days, many women were hurt making that trip, especially during monsoon.  You’ve had your joke, now won’t you give us back the pipe?”

Kumar Baandar scratched his chin and cocked his head to one side, his lips curling into a mock pout.  “Well,” he began, “Kumar Baandar is a compassionate soul, and he will give you back your pipe on one condition.”

“And what is that?”

“Kumar Baandar has long coveted the Sacred Coconut, which that slithering scoundrel Suroj Sarpa+ holds deep in his cave on the other side of the mountain.  If you could fetch me the Sacred Coconut, I think I might be able to give you back your pipe.”

A collective gasp escaped the men as they listened to the monkey’s demands.  The men of Jamlakhola, like all people around this mountain, feared the great serpent Suroj Sarpa more than any other beast of the forest, and none dared even approach his cave dwelling.  All the children of all the villages for miles around grew up with tales of foolish children who went into the snake’s gloomy pit, never to return.  The men were outraged at the monkey thief’s chicanery, but when they considered the task required to restore water to their village, their courage failed them.  The men just stood around, muttering in defeat, while the crafty monkey chuckled to himself.  “Will none accept Kumar Baandar’s terms?  What a shame.  I guess your poor women will just have to make that dangerous hike every morning.  I hope you can explain to them why.”

Just then, Sushil stepped forward.  “I will go,” he declared, his chest out, his head high.  The men, despite their terrible predicament, broke into a round of laughter.  The headman approached Sushil and placed a paternal hand on his shoulder.

“Sushil, please.  The bravest men of our village do not dare to enter the serpent’s lair.  It is a long journey to the far side of the mountain.  If it is too hard for our bravest and strongest men, it is too hard for you.”

“If the bravest and strongest men of our village will not go to save our water, then perhaps they are not truly the bravest or the strongest.”  As he said this some of the younger men, whom the headman and Sushil obviously had been referring to, bristled at this slight upon their bravery.  Yet none spoke up, and none stepped forward to assume the challenge.  “I am not afraid of the serpent.  I will go and bring back the Sacred Coconut and return water to our village.”

“Sushil,” began the headman, in the tone one would use to address a silly little boy whose imagination had run away with him.

“No,” Sushil said, brushing off the headman’s arm.  “I am not a child.  I am a man just like the rest of you, and you cannot stop me.  Now, who will be brave enough to join me?”  He looked around, but none stepped forward.  Many of the men hung their heads sheepishly, afraid to meet Sushil’s gaze.  “Fine, then.  Wait here for me.  I’ll be back before dark.” 

And so Sushil set off alone into the forest.  He pushed on, splashing along flooded clay paths, climbing up toward the top of the hill.  It was a difficult trek, and as he trudged ever deeper into the forest, the canopy of the trees above grew thicker and thicker, until only the narrowest slivers of light poked through.  Everywhere, Sushil could hear the forest alive around him: the chirping of insects, the scuttling of a lizard or bird through the undergrowth, the screech of other unknown creatures that called the dark recesses of the forest home.  Meanwhile, the path grew less clear until it was completely overgrown, and Sushil found himself tearing and hacking through the thick vegetation until finally he arrived at a clearing and came out onto a small mound of grass above the tree line.  He had reached the top of the hill.  He paused to look out at the sweeping vista unfolding in all directions below him.  He felt like he could see forever.  Hills thrust violently upward from deep gorges, while others gently sloped down into broad green valleys.  Houses of orange clay and others of cement coated in blue and green paint dotted the landscape.  Sushil imagined, on a clear day, he might be able to see all the way to India, and beyond even.  He might see all the way to those distant, fantastic lands that existed in black and white on the pages of his books.  The crown of the Himalaya stood ominously in the distance, shrouded in a gray.  Black storm clouds brooded in the east, and in the great distance he could hear the rumble of thunder. 

He knew from the many stories he had heard as a child that the cave of Suroj Sarpa lay on the far side of the hill, behind a great waterfall in a deep ravine below Kalika Mandir, the temple where the people of his village traveled to offer a goat during the Dashain festival each year.  The annual trip to the temple was the only occasion on which his family would allow him to leave the village, as it was a sacred obligation from all Hindus to worship during Dashain.  Ironically, Sushil did not believe any of the old stories about the Gods and their heroic deeds, but he went because it was his only chance to explore the world beyond the boundaries of his village.  He found the temple from his vantage point and made a path to it.  The deep roar of the thunder sounded closer every time it echoed over the hills, and Sushil wanted to hurry and be able to return before the big rain came.

As he descended the opposite side of the mountain, a loud sound rocked the forest.  It sounded like thunder, but much closer, and Sushil knew it couldn’t be thunder because it had come from below him.  He froze, listening intently for the sound, which came again like an explosion.  It had definitely come from the direction he needed to go.  There was nothing else to do but muster his courage and march onward towards whatever was making the deafening sound.  Every meter he advanced brought the sound closer and clearer, and he noticed that all the creatures of the forest were skittering in the other direction.  Finally he came to the source: it was the fearsome tiger, Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh#.  The tiger was crouched low, his head rolled back and erupting with the ferocious roars that had resounded throughout the forest.  Then his eyes caught sight of Sushil.  Sushil froze in his tracks.  At first, his heart raced with fear, until he noticed that the tiger was carrying his front right paw in an unusual, gingerly way.  A realization dawned over Sushil, and he approached the great beast tentatively. 

At first Bhimsen Bahadur recoiled, and emitted a low growl to warn this human to stay away.  The great tiger knew all about people.  They were violent, dangerous animals who liked to kill for fun, and many of his ancestors had been murdered by these strange two-legged creatures.  In fact, only a few of his kind even remained because this most deadly of creatures had stolen all of their land to build their houses and plant their crops.  But Sushil put out a kindly hand, and said, “Don’t be afraid of me, great tiger.  I don’t want to hurt you.  I understand why you are roaring, and if you let me, I’d like to try and help you.”

At first Bhimsen Bahadur was suspicious of Sushil.  He had never heard of a human simply helping another animal, for no reason.  “And what do you expect in return, human?”

“Nothing,” said Sushil, quite astonished.

“Then why do you wish to help me?” growled the tiger.

“Because you are in great pain and discomfort, and as a fellow creature that walks this earth, you are my brother, and it is my duty to help you if I can.”

Bhimsen was, needless to say, perplexed.  He had never heard a human speak this way, and yet he sensed that Sushil was telling the truth.  He bowed his head as a sign that he would allow Sushil to approach.  Sushil stepped boldly towards the tiger and took his paw into his hand.  He pressed softly over different areas, asking where it hurt.  Finally he found the cause of the pain.  A sharp thorn had lodged itself in between Bhimsen Bahadur’s claws, and was wedged in so deeply into the narrow crevice that, despite his best efforts, the tiger could not extract it.  In fact, every time he tried, the thorn wriggled deeper into his paw, causing greater agony.

“Hold still,” Sushil said.  “This might hurt quite a bit for a moment, so try not to dig your claws into me.”  The tiger just gazed the Sushil and said nothing.  Sushil spread out the tiger’s claws and reached in, getting a hold on the butt of the thorn.  Then, Bhimsen Bahadur felt a searing pain for an instant as Sushil yanked the thorn from his paw.  In the flash of pain, he almost forgot to keep his claws retracted, but in a second the pain was gone.  He couldn’t believe it.  He looked at his paw, then at Sushil, who stood smiling with the tiny thorn still pinched between his thumb and forefinger. 

“Strange that such a tiny object could cause such terrible pain to a mighty beast such as yourself, isn’t it?” Sushil said.

Bhimsen Bahadur didn’t know what to say.  He was not accustomed to other creatures offering him help, or even not running away from him in terror.  He nodded his head.  “I am indebted to you, kind human.  If ever you need me to return the favor, you need only ask.”  And then he bounded off into the forest.

As Sushil watched him disappear with a rustle into the dense foliage, he heard the approaching grumbling of thunder, reminding him of his mission and speeding him along.  It was a hard journey, but finally he arrived at the waterfall which hid the entrance to Suroj Sarpa’s cave.  He stepped through the curtain of water and into a dark, murky cavern.  He walked to the edge of the light, and then stopped as he decided it would be unwise to walk into the pitch black of the deep bowels of the cave.  Yet he needed to find the Sacred Coconut.  He thought of all the stories he had heard of children trying to sneak into the cave to steal Suroj Sarpa’s treasures, only to meet an untimely end as a midday snack for the treacherous snake.  Suddenly, he knew what he had to do.  All of the people whom Suroj Sarpa had gobbled up had tried to sneak into the cave, like burglars.  Sushil took a deep breath.

“Suroj Sarpa,” he boomed out in his loudest, most confident-sounding voice.  “I’ve come for the Sacred Coconut.  Show yourself, snake.  I have no fear of you.”  He hoped his voice did not betray that, now that he found himself in the snake’s lair, he did in fact feel a bit of apprehension.

“Who daresssss disssturb my sssssslumber?” came a hissing voice that bounced all around the cavern, followed by the great snake himself.  The serpent slithered out of the shadows, winding himself between Sushil’s feet.  Sushil stood his ground, determined not to show any fear to the snake, certain that if he did, it would be his doom.

“My name is Sushil, and I have come from the village of Jamlakhola to seek the Sacred Coconut.”

“And what do you desssire with the Sssssacred Coconut?” hissed the snake.

“Kumar Baandar has stolen the pipe that brings water to our village, and will not return it unless we bring him the Sacred Coconut,” Sushil explained.

Suroj Sarpa hissed in disgust.  “That ssssssilly monkey.  He’sssss wanted my Ssssssacred Coconut for many yearsssssss.”  Then the snake paused, and considered Sushil.  This human had come into his home and announced himself boldly, and had not cowered in fear when he had shown himself as all the others had.  He decided that this brave soul had earned the right to have a chance to live.  “Well, let’sssss make a deal.  We’ll play a sssssimple game.  If you win, I’ll give you the Sssssacred Coconut.”

“And if I lose?”

“If you lossssssse,” began the snake, and his forked tongue flitted out, “If you losssse, then you musssst ssssstay, and I will eat you for sssssupper.”

Sushil swallowed.  He was worried now, but what could he do?  His village needed the Sacred Coconut.  He had to accept the snake’s terms.

“Deal.  What’s the game?”

“Jussst a sssssimple riddle.  If you sssssolve it, the Sssssacred Coconut issss yourssss.  But if not….” His voice trailed off as he coiled up around Sushil and met him eye to eye.  Sushil refused to blink. 

“And what’s the riddle?”

The snake unwound himself and slithered over to the entrance of the cave.  “A conundrum, really.  A farmer findssss himssself in a ssssticky ssssituation.  He comesss to a river, which he musssst crossssss.  He isss bringing with him a tiger, a goat, and a bundle of grassssss to ssssell in the market.  There isss a boat on the sssshore, but it issss only big enough for the farmer to crossssss with one thing at a time.  He can only take either the grassssss, the goat, or the tiger with him on each crosssssssing.  But here’sssss hissss predicament.  If he leavesssss the grasssss unattended with the goat to take the tiger acrossss, the goat will eat the grassssss.  If he leaves the goat unattended with the tiger to take the grassss acrosssss, the tiger will eat the goat.  He mussssst get all three to the market, and there issss no other way acrossssss the river.  What doesssss he do?”

Sushil thought hard.  It seemed an impossible situation.  It was obvious that the farmer should take the goat across first, leaving the goat on one side with the tiger alone with the grass on the other.  But then what?  If he took the tiger over next, it would eat the goat when he went back for the grass.  And if he took the grass, the goat would have finished it off before he could get back with the tiger.  There seemed to be no answer to the riddle.  Suroj Sarpa slid over from the mouth of the cave and began entwining himself around Sushil’s feet in a figure eight.  He could sense that the human was failing to find the answer.  His tongue fluttered out again as he anticipated the nice meal Sushil would make.

Sushil, however, would not let the snake perturb him, or distract him.  There had to be a solution.

“Time’ssssss almosssst up,” whispered the snake into his ear.  It opened its jaws wide as it positioned itself above Sushil’s head, ready to enjoy this nice morsel.  Yes, this meal would leave him satisfied for quite some time.  Just as he was about to clamp down, though, Sushil spoke up, “I’ve got it.”

Suroj Sarpa retracted his head and gave a frustrated hiss, but put on a polite smile.  “Yessss, well?  What issss it?”  Surely the human was just playing for time, but it wouldn’t work.  He remained coiled around Sushil’s body. 

Sushil spoke calmly.  “Well, the farmer can’t just take them over to the other side and leave them there, because no matter what, either the grass or the goat will be eaten.”

“Yessss?”  Suroj Sarpa closed his eyes and imagined what the human would taste like.  It had been so long since he had enjoyed man-flesh.

“So the only option is to not leave them on the other side.  He must take the goat first, and leave it on the other side of the bank.  There it will be safe, and the tiger will have no interest in the grass.”  The snake was barely listening.  Other humans had worked out this most obvious first step, but none had been clever enough to reach the final solution.  He was just waiting for Sushil to stumble so he could sink his teeth into him.  “Then, he must go back and get either the tiger or the grass, it doesn’t matter which.”  Suroj Sarpa paused.  “Say he takes the tiger.  He gets out of the boat on the other side with the tiger, and then brings the goat with him for the journey back to the first side of the river.  So the tiger is alone on the far bank, the grass alone on the other, and the goat is in the boat again with the farmer.”  Suroj Sarpa recoiled.  Impossible!  The human must have tricked him somehow.  “Then, the farmer leaves the goat alone on the first side of the river and takes the grass across, and leaves it with the tiger, where it will be safe.  Then, he goes back across the river, alone, this time, and finally collects the goat.  When he crosses again, he’ll have all three safely on the other side of the river.”

The snake hissed in fury, and almost struck down on Sushil in anger at besting him at the game.  No human had ever matched his wits before.  “I’ve won the game, Mr. Sarpa.  Now, a deal’s a deal.  Bring me the Sacred Coconut.”

It was true.  Suroj Sarpa could not argue.  Fuming, he released Sushil and slithered off into the dark, and when he reemerged he was carrying the Sacred Coconut.

“Take it,” he hissed angrily.  He flung the Coconut up to Sushil, who caught it and rushed out of the cave.  He did not want to spend one moment longer than he had to inside the snake’s lair.  When he came back out into the forest, he saw that it was darker than before.  He knew he had not been so long that night should have fallen.  Just then a thick glob of water plopped down on his forehead.  He looked up and saw a blanket of angry looking dark clouds overhead, and felt a steady trickle of rain build up.  He raced back through the forest, past where he had helped Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh, past the vista point at the top of the mountain, pausing only for a moment to see that the distant Himalaya were now completely obscured by thick storm clouds.  He rushed back down the slippery mountain path.  By the time he reached the water tank, a heavy rain had begun to pour down from the sky.  When he emerged into the clearing at the waterfall, he noticed that many of the men had gone.  Those that remained, including the headman, cried out in shock when the saw him break through the trees.

“Sushil, we were so worried.  Many of the men returned to the village to tell everyone that you had been eaten by Suroj Sarpa.  They –” he stopped talking abruptly when he saw the Sacred Coconut in Sushil’s hand.  “You got it,” he said in a barely audible whisper.  He was stunned.  How could Sushil, so fragile, so peculiar, have accomplished such a tremendous and difficult feat?

“Yes, I’ve returned with the Sacred Coconut, as I said I would,” Sushil declared, then turned to Kumar Baandar, who was no longer smiling nor laughing.  He held out the Sacred Coconut to the monkey.  “Okay, thief, it’s time for you to honor your word.  I’ve brought the Coconut, now give us the pipe.”

The monkey, too, could not believe his eyes.  How could this human, whom all the other silly humans clearly held in such low regard, have survived the treacherous stretch of jungle, and managed to outwit Suroj Sarpa and get his hands on the Sacred Coconut?  He was flustered, but regained his composure quickly, he still had one last trick in his bag.

“Fine,” he said, bowing low, pretending to show deep respect for Sushil.  “You are clearly a man of great intelligence and ability.  Throw Kumar Baandar the Sacred Coconut, and he will return the pipe to you.  Kumar Baandar is a monkey of his word.”  Sushil tossed up the Coconut and Kumar Baandar caught it with his free hand.  As he did, he let out a triumphant cackle.  “Ha!  You foolish human, you thought I’d give back the pipe?  You may have outsmarted that bumbling snake, but none are more clever than me, Kumar Baandar.”  The monkey erupted into a fit of riotous laughter.

Sushil felt his heart sink into his stomach and his face flush.  He couldn’t believe, after everything, that he had fallen for such a simple trick.  How could he be so naïve?

Just then, a rustling came from the dense bushes just beyond the clearing, and out sprang Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh.  The other men shrieked in fear of the mighty tiger, some collapsing backward onto their butts.  Kumar Baandar gasped and cowered back further up on the branch.  Only Sushil stood his ground.  The tiger bounded across the clearing and leapt up onto the branch with Kumar Baandar. 

“You’re going to give these humans their pipe back, and restore water to their village, and if I ever find out you’ve played such a trick again, I’ll be very angry,” he snarled.  Kumar Baandar was shaking in fright, but he managed to nod and toss the pipe to Sushil before springing off with a terrified screech into the depths of the forest.  Bhimsen Bahadur turned to Sushil, nodded, and pounced off in the other direction, and was gone. 

The men all came up around Sushil, in awe of his great bravery.  He had shown that he must be very clever to have survived the lair of Suroj Sarpa, and he did not back away in the presence of Bhimsen Bahadur Baagh, showing he had great courage.  The headman approached Sushil and placed a hand on his shoulder once more.  This time, there was nothing patronizing in his manner or tone. 

“Little brother Sushil, you have saved our village.  I am so sorry for doubting you all this time.  You are a clever, brave, strong man, and the hero of Jamlakhola.  Please forgive us all.”

Sushil simply smiled, took the headman’s hand in his, and said, “Come, older brother.  Let’s go home.”

And Sushil’s brave act became a legend in Jamlakhola and all the villages for miles and miles, and he and the rest of the people of his village lived happily ever after.

THE END

Raamrosanga basnus,

TO

*Baandar – monkey

+Sarpa – snake

#Baagh – tiger

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