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I wrote the following story for the fabulous War Child anthology, "Kids' Night In". The idea for the story came to me on a holy mountain in Japan, called Hagurosan. It's actually a true story up to a certain point! There WERE shrines on the mountain like the one I describe in the story. And I DID find a coin while I was walking around one of them. I left it as an offering, but as I went to leave for the second time, I noticed another coin! Then I wondered -- what if there was a new coin lying in my path every time I tried to leave??? Here's the result of my wonderings!

HAGUROSAN

no path is ordinary/ all are magical/ winding their ways to wonders

“I don’t want to go to the shrine,” Hagurosan said. “I want to play.”

   “There will be time to play later,” his mother replied, handing him a small, freshly baked cake. “Take this and offer it to the spirits.”

   “But …” Hagurosan began.

   “Please,” his mother sighed. “I am too tired to argue.”

   And because Hagurosan was a good child, he pulled a face, stuck the cake in his pocket, and set off on the hour-long walk to the shrine.

   The sun sizzled in the sky. Children were playing in the dust, splashing each other with water from the well. Some of Hagurosan’s friends saw him. “Come play with us!” they called. But Hagurosan shook his head and walked on.

   Hagurosan scaled the small hill overlooking his village. He paused to admire the round huts and thatched roofs, then trotted down the gentle slope to the base of the Holy Mountain, where the real climb began.

   The gods dwelt on top of the cloud-capped mountain. The clouds were their floors. When the sky was blue, it meant they were abroad. Only the priests climbed to the top of the Holy Mountain. It was guarded by snake-hounds, which would kill any human foolish enough to disobey the sacred laws.

   But there was a shrine a fifth of the way up, where the spirits lived. Hagurosan wasn’t entirely sure about the ways in which spirits were different to gods, but he knew they weren’t as powerful. They were also more involved with humans. Gods only intervened on important occasions, during war, or if the land was threatened by disease. The spirits, on the other hand, could protect a farmer’s crops, or ensure a woman’s birthing time went smoothly.

   The climb was hard. Although the path was lined with trees, the sun found a way through, and Hagurosan was soon sweating. He stopped by a stream to wash his face and drink. The stream was a fierce torrent in winter, but today it was a bare trickle.

   As Hagurosan rested, he saw a bird overturn a pebble and greedily peck at the insects underneath. Hagurosan’s stomach rumbled. Many splendid fruits grew on the Holy Mountain, but all were forbidden to the villagers. Only the priests could harvest the crops here.

   Hagurosan’s right hand stole to his pocket. “I can’t eat the cake,” he muttered. “Not all of it. But the spirits won’t mind if I take a small bite.” He pulled out the cake and nibbled at a corner. Then he nibbled at the other corners, to make it look as though the cake was designed with four in-slanting corners. Pleased with this, he went to replace the cake in his pocket. But, because he did not want to damage it, he decided to leave it safe in his hand. He continued up the Holy Mountain.

   Unfortunately for Hagurosan, a cake in a boy’s hand has the knack of finding its way to his lips. As he climbed, he nibbled, a bit here, a bit there. He meant to leave a large chunk, but by the time he arrived at the shrine, only crumbs remained, stuck to his fingers like glittering brown stars. And even these he licked clean before entering the shrine, so that he could place his hands together cleanly and pray.

   Short stone statues dotted the shrine’s circular bounds. Larger statues adorned the interior. The largest was at the centre, twice Hagurosan’s height. All of the statues had faces which were human and yet not. Most had been wrapped in layers of clothing — a cape, a hat, a shawl. Toys lay at the feet of some statues, or tools, or coins. (There were not many coins. Hagurosan came from a poor village. They bartered with other villages for most of their goods.) Food – mostly rotting cakes – surrounded every statue. All of the goods had been left as offerings to the spirits.

   Hagurosan’s family usually left their offerings at the feet of a statue near the rear of the shrine. It had been erected by Hagurosan’s great-grandfather, and it was supposed to look like him. But today Hagurosan dared not face that statue. He had eaten the offering and it was only now that he was standing within the shrine that he realized the size of his sin. He had taken food meant for the spirits. People who did that were struck down dead or inflicted with a terrible disease. Sometimes their families were cursed too.

   Hagurosan thought about running away and lying to his mother, but the spirits could not be tricked. His only hope was to throw himself at their mercy and pray that they took pity on him.

   Hagurosan walked to the statue at the centre of the shrine, head bowed and hands joined, murmuring prayers. When he reached the statue, he fell to his knees and prayed for several minutes, before looking up at the weather-beaten face.

   “I didn’t mean to eat the cake,” Hagurosan said, a tear trickling from his left eye. “I only wanted a bit of it. But I couldn’t stop once I started.” He rooted through his pockets, looking for something else to offer the spirits. But his pockets were empty. He thought about taking off his shorts and leaving them, but that would mean walking naked back to the village.

   “Please don’t curse me,” Hagurosan whimpered. “If you forgive me, I’ll come back with all my toys. I’ll give you all my dinners for a week. Anything!”

   A light breeze whistled through the trees, but that was the only response. Hagurosan stood uncertainly. “If you curse me,” he said to the statue, “will you please not curse my family? They didn’t eat the cake. That was just me.”

   Hagurosan made for the exit. He was almost there when something twinkled and caught his eye. Stopping, he bent over and discovered a small silver coin nestled in a bed of moss.

   Hagurosan’s heart beat fast with excitement. A real silver coin! He’d never held one before. A copper coin, yes, a couple of times. But never silver. His head spun giddily as he thought of all the things he could buy. Toys, sweet cakes, clothes. A present for his mother. She loved it when his father returned from market with presents. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did she smiled her widest smile and was in a good mood for days after.

   Gripping the coin tight, Hagurosan started forward at a run …

   … then stopped. He opened his hand slowly and gazed down at the coin, then looked back at the tall statue in the centre of the shrine. Although he knew it was impossible, Hagurosan had the feeling that the statue’s eyes had moved. They seemed to be focused on him now, judging him.

   “OK,” Hagurosan sighed after a handful of seconds. He trudged unhappily back to the statue, knelt and set the coin down before it. There weren’t many offerings here, but all were impressive — a beautiful mirror, ornate necklaces, a leather wallet, and several sparkling jewels. Only the best gifts were left at this statue, on occasions when people had something extra special to wish for.

   “There,” Hagurosan said. “It’s worth much more than the cake. You could buy a hundred cakes with it. But it’s yours now. I don’t deserve it.”

   He glanced up at the statue, hoping it would come to life, smile upon him, and tell him that he could keep the coin. But the statue did not move. After one last lingering gaze at the coin, Hagurosan rose. He was on his feet before it occurred to him that he hadn’t made a wish. With so generous a gift, Hagurosan should have been able to make a momentous wish. But since the gift had been offered to atone for eating the cake, maybe he didn’t have the right to wish for anything. At the same time, it would be a shame to waste such a precious wish.

   “I know,” he said, suddenly inspired. “Bless the children of the world, especially those in need of help. Look after them and grant them happiness and a safe place to live. This is my wish.”

   Hagurosan bowed low to the statue, turned and walked towards the exit. But this time, as before, he stopped short. There was another coin! It lay in almost the same place, and looked very much like the first coin. Hagurosan felt faint. To find two silver coins in the same day was unheard of!

   As Hagurosan picked up the coin, his features creased with doubt. Was this a gift from the spirits? Were they rewarding him for giving the other coin to them? Or was it just good luck? If it was luck, then he should give this one to the spirits as well. He still felt guilty. If he took this coin, the guilt would grow within him and eat him away as surely as he’d eaten the cake.

   “This has taught me a lesson I’ll never forget!” Hagurosan grunted as he took the coin to the statue and dropped it beside the first coin. He felt disgusted, but he knew he was doing the right thing.

   Hagurosan headed for the exit, faster than before, eager to race down the Holy Mountain and tell his friends what had happened. But, for the third time that day, he stopped before setting foot outside the shrine.

   There was another coin, nestled on its side in the moss!

   This time Hagurosan didn’t touch the coin. He stared at it suspiciously, afraid. This wasn’t normal. It wasn’t just that he’d found three silver coins in the same spot on the same day, but that he had not noticed the second and third while picking up the first. Hagurosan now searched the ground around the ground, scattering the moss, sweeping through the dirt, making sure there were no other coins. Satisfied that this was the final one, he took it to the statue, set it down next to the others and again went to leave.

   There was another coin.

   Hagurosan stood over the coin, shivering. He studied it for what felt like a year, his stomach tight with fear. Then he stepped over it and hurried for the exit.

   “Wait,” said a voice that was all voices.

   Hagurosan froze.

   “We do not want you to leave,” said the voice that was all voices.

   Hagurosan managed to turn his head. He thought he would see the lips of the giant statue moving, but they didn’t. None of the statues’ lips moved. But words came nevertheless.

   “We want you to collect the coins,” said the voice that was all voices. “When the day comes that you see no coin, you may leave with our blessing.

   “Wh-wh-wh-what if I … luh-luh-leave before that?” Hagurosan croaked.

   “Then we cannot grant your wish,” said the voice that was all voices, and after that it was silent.

*

Late that night, Hagurosan’s father came looking for him. He found his son huddled on the ground in front of the shrine’s largest statue, crying softly. “Hagurosan,” he said, touching the boy’s trembling back. “What is wrong?”

   “The spirits won’t let me go!” Hagurosan moaned, clutching his father tight. “I ate their cake and now they say I’ve got to stay here to make my wish come true. But I don’t want it to come true, not if it means I can’t go home!”

   Hagurosan’s father let the boy babble, then worked the full story out of him. He was troubled by his son’s tale. His first thought was that Hagurosan had made it up. But he could see the three silver coins lying together at the statue’s feet.

   “Where did you find the coins?” Hagurosan’s father asked. When Hagurosan showed him, he searched the ground thoroughly to make sure it was clear. “Now,” he said, smiling at his son. “You don’t see any coins, do you?”

   “No,” Hagurosan sniffed.

   “Then come with me.” Hagurosan’s father held his hands out.

   Hagurosan took a step towards his father. A second. A third. Then he stopped, bent and picked up a dull silver coin. “See?” he said quietly, turning to place the coin before the statue with the others.

   Hagurosan’s father studied his son in wonder, then spun around wildly and ran down the Holy Mountain to fetch the local priest.

*

The priest was sceptical (and angry at having been disturbed during his supper). But when he saw Hagurosan produce eight silver coins in a row, his scepticism gave way to awe.

   “It is a miracle,” the priest said to Hagurosan’s father and the scattering of villagers who’d got wind that something strange was happening. “But I cannot make sense of it. I will need to consult with my superiors.”

   “But they are several days’ walk away,” Hagurosan’s father said. “What will my son do in the meantime?”

   “Stay here,” the priest said. “And pick coins. As many as he can.”

   The priest departed, sweeping down the Holy Mountain, robes flapping around him. Hagurosan’s father held a quick conference with the other villagers. Clothes were bundled together and passed to Hagurosan. “You must sleep here,” his father said.

   “What about you?” Hagurosan asked. “Will you stay too?”

   “I cannot,” his father said. “It is forbidden for ordinary people to spend the night here. But I will return in the morning and bring your mother.”

   Hagurosan’s father hugged him hard, then left with the other villagers. Hagurosan felt terribly lonely. He wished with all his heart to race after them. But he didn’t dare disobey the will of the spirits, so he pulled the clothes tight around his body and tried to rock himself to sleep.

*

Hagurosan’s mother marched up the Holy Mountain the next morning, determined to return to the village with her son. But when she saw him pick coins out of what had moments before been thin air, she realized her son was at the centre of something wondrous. Instead of removing Hagurosan from the shrine, she comforted him as best she could, gave him biscuits, and promised to return later with fresh cakes and bread, fish and meat, whatever he desired.

   Over the next few days, the people in the village took turns to carry food up the Holy Mountain to Hagurosan. They also brought clothes and toys. Many children came to play with him. They felt awkward around him at first – they had heard their parents talking of a boy marvel – but after a few minutes they saw that he was the same Hagurosan as always, and played with him freely.

   When he wasn’t playing with his friends, Hagurosan picked coins. He lost count halfway through the second day, but the pile was soon as high as his knees. The villagers reckoned he must have picked five or six hundred silver coins — a fortune.

   Each time Hagurosan found a coin, he prayed that it would be the last. But every time he tried to leave, a new coin was waiting to be added to the ever-growing pile at the foot of the statue.

*

Twelve days later the priest and his superiors returned. The villagers had never seen so many priests before, or such important priests. Most were scared of them and stayed within their huts, fearful lest the priests should mark this as a bad omen and bring a curse upon the entire village.

   At the shrine, the braver villagers were told to leave, then the priests entered and positioned themselves in a large circle around Hagurosan. Once he’d demonstrated his ability to find magical coins, and once the priests had tried and failed, they questioned him aggressively. Some shouted, some whispered, some threatened, some offered bribes. Hagurosan was terrified and confused by the attention, but all he could do was tell the truth, so he did.

   Eventually an elderly priest, who had not yet spoken, cleared his throat. The other priests fell silent. “This boy has been blessed with punishment,” the priest said calmly. “The spirits have asked him to collect the coins in order to grant the wish he made. Hagurosan asked them to bless the children of the world, to help and protect those in need. This they are doing, by providing us with the means to help the children ourselves.

   “The coins are for the children,” the priest said. “Hagurosan will collect them, then we will take them and spend them on children who need help.”

   “But it is forbidden to remove offerings from the shrine,” another priest said.

   “Yes,” the elderly priest agreed. “But the coins are not our offerings to the spirits. They are the spirits’ offerings to us.”

   The elderly priest looked at Hagurosan. His eyes were dark and deep, and Hagurosan found himself unable to look away. “You do not have to do this,” the priest said. “The spirits did not order you to stay. They said they wanted you to collect the coins. If you choose to leave, I do not think they will harm you. But there will be no more coins, and the children you wished to help will suffer.”

   Hagurosan almost fled when he heard that. He hadn’t really thought about what he was saying when he made the wish, and had no desire to sacrifice his freedom to help others. But now that he considered the priest’s words, he realized how instrumental he could be. War and disease were common in his part of the world. There were many orphans, alone and hungry, doomed to die of starvation and lack of care. He had the power to help them. If he turned his back on it, he would feel like the most wretched person on the face of the planet.

   “OK,” Hagurosan said, with a heavy heart and tears in his eyes. “I’ll stay.” And as he said it, he imagined a prison door clanging shut behind him, cutting him off from the world for the rest of his life.

*  *  *

no matter the creeds of man/ respect the holy/ and the world is your reward


You’re the green-tooth monster!” a young boy shouted, slapping Hagurosan hard. Hagurosan bared his teeth, grunted monstrously, and lumbered after the children who ran away from him, laughing with delight.

   Hagurosan was a young man now. Other men his age were hunting and farming, travelling to market to trade their goods, making plans to marry. Hagurosan, however, remained in the shrine, playing with children, hearing all about the great world beyond from those who visited him, but unable to set foot in it.

   He knew every last inch of the shrine. He had walked around it thousands of times. He knew every crack in every statue. He knew the birds, foxes and squirrels which came to feed on the offerings left for the spirits. They had been wary of him to begin with, but now accepted him as just another feature of the shrine.

   The village at the foot of the Holy Mountain had changed beyond recognition, according to the reports. The coins Hagurosan collected had been spent well. Shelters had been built to house children who were victims of war or suffering. New bakeries had been established. Public baths. Playgrounds. Even a school!

   The village elders relied heavily on Hagurosan for advice. They asked for his counsel before embarking on building schemes. He had been blessed by the spirits, and they did not care to risk offending them by somehow offending Hagurosan.

   When Hagurosan wasn’t discussing plans with the elders, or collecting coins, he was usually playing or talking with the children. They loved him. Many were suspicious, scared and surly when they came to the village. Hagurosan put them all at their ease. He was able to communicate with them, even if they didn’t speak his language — another gift from the gods. He would talk with them when they came, tell them about his past and the village, and gradually chip away at their wounded defences. They learnt first to trust Hagurosan, and later to trust others.

   In return for helping the children, they provided Hagurosan with company. It was lonely on the Holy Mountain, but the children helped the days pass quickly. He could not escape the loneliness of the nights, when he slept alone in the small shack which had been built for him within the shrine, but days never dragged.

   Sometimes Hagurosan envied his young friends. His heart often ached when he thought of his lost childhood. He would have given anything to be one of those he helped, to be able to explore the village, run where he wished, hunt with the men, trade at market, court girls.

   But he never regretted his decision. Almost every day new children arrived, strays and waifs, some travelling for months on end to find refuge, crossing war zones, braving forests filled with wild animals and soul-sucking ghosts. Children without parents and homes, who’d been orphaned or abandoned, some on crutches, some who had crawled, all hurting in one way or another. They were lost, unsure of the world, regarding it warily through haunted, distrustful eyes.

   Before, these children would have perished, or grown up into unpleasant, hate-filled adults, twisted by bitterness and lack of love. Now they had a corner of the world to call their own. They were housed, fed, clothed, educated, loved. They played with the children of the village and grew happy and strong. Smiles replaced tears and hope replaced fears.

   Whenever Hagurosan felt sad or resentful, he looked into the eyes of the rescued children, saw the relief and happiness, and knew with all his being that he had made the right decision. The knowledge didn’t make the regrets go away, but it allowed Hagurosan to live content with them.

*

One day priests climbed the Holy Mountain, intent on taking Hagurosan away. They had been sent by a prince from the far north. He wished to install Hagurosan in his palace and use the coins to build temples to his own spirits.

   “But what about the children?” Hagurosan cried. “The spirits provide me with the coins to help them.”

   “No,” the head priest said. “That was a misunderstanding. The spirits wish to be honoured. They would not waste such a fortune on simple children.”

   “But they’re not wasting it,” Hagurosan said.

   “You are a peasant,” the priest laughed. “What makes you think you know more than us? We have devoted our lives to understanding the ways of the spirits and interpreting their wishes.”

   “But …” Hagurosan began.

   “Come!” the priest snapped. “Do not argue. Leave with us now or else …”

   “It is not for you to understand the ways of the spirits,” interrupted a voice that was all voices. Hagurosan had heard this voice before, and smiled. But the priests had never heard it, and they cringed with fear. “The people we speak to hear us in their hearts and have no need of interpretors. Hagurosan is doing our work. Let him be, and never again presume to know our thoughts.

   The voice that was all voices stopped. Moments later the priests fled, pale and shaken. They never returned, but word spread of what had happened, and in the years to come more and more people made the pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, to learn from the man who had heard the spirits with his heart. Hagurosan had only one thing to teach them, since there was only one thing he knew: “Be kind to the children, and protect them.” But that, most came to see as they wandered through the village of vibrant, warm-hearted children, was enough. If they could get that right, all else would one day follow.

*  *  *

never doubt the glorious/ it reveals itself/ as time rids our souls of flesh

Many years passed. Hagurosan’s parents died, along with his friends. He became an elder, one of the oldest ever known. He moved slowly now, and creaked when he bent to pick up the coins. He did not need to sleep much at night, or eat much.

   He was enjoying this phase of his life. Every morning he would wake early and collect coins. Shortly after dawn, children from the town started to arrive and he would pass the day talking and playing with them. (The village had grown over the decades, and was now one of the biggest towns in the land.)

   Hagurosan never tired of the children. Adults came to see him too, and he received them politely, but he preferred the company of children. Perhaps it was that he had never really grown out of his childhood. In some ways he had been robbed of it. He had not matured the same as other children, learning the ways of adults. Inside he was still a child, seeing the world through fresh, hungry, enquiring eyes.

   Nobody knew how many children had been helped by Hagurosan’s coins. Thousands, certainly. Tens of thousands, quite possibly. Perhaps more. They had come from all corners of the world, braving the harshest terrain, to find friends and protecters, comfort and rest. They were safe here. The town was a haven. No tribes attacked Hagurosan’s people, or made claims on the area. It was a holy place, respected by all, where children could play and grow. No war, no suffering, no hatred, no greed. There was enough for all, and all shared equally.

   As the children grew, some married and stayed in the town, while some moved away to lead ordinary lives elsewhere. But others left on a mission. They walked from town to town, village to village, spreading the legend of Hagurosan and sowing the seeds of an idea. “This does not have to be a one-off,” they told people. “Children from all over the world have come together and created an earthly paradise. If that can happen in one village, why not in all?”

   Hagurosan didn’t think the world was ready for the message. He thought people had a long way to go before they were ready to accept the idea that they had the power to create a perfect world. But it was a start. Mankind, like the children of the town, would grow and learn, and perhaps, many years in the future, all villages and towns would be like Hagurosan’s. No wars would be fought, and no child or person need ever suffer or go hungry or lonely again.

*

Hagurosan was talking with some of his many children. They were telling him the latest news from the town. He always enjoyed hearing about the town, even though he often felt a pang of envy and wished he too could walk the streets and enjoy what he had helped create. But the pang was usually a small one, and he had long since learnt to ignore it.

   Today, however, as the children were speaking, a sharp pain shot through his chest. He was surprised by it, and upset at himself for being so foolish. To shake off the feeling, he walked towards the exit, meaning to pick up some coins. But when he got to the spot where the coins appeared, there was nothing. He stopped, confused, then took a few paces forward in case he had misjudged the spot. Still no coin.

   Hagurosan turned to ask the children if they had played a trick on him and moved the exit. But what he saw caused the words to die on his lips. By the giant statue in the centre of the glade, the children were gathered around the body of a man who was quite obviously dead.

   That man was Hagurosan.

   As Hagurosan watched, the children wept and stroked the hair and face of the elderly corpse. Two of them hurried down the Holy Mountain to alert their elders. The rest stayed to keep Hagurosan’s body company.

   “Can I leave now?” Hagurosan asked, his words softer than a light spring breeze.

   “Yes,” said the voice that was all voices.

   “Where will I go?” Hagurosan asked.

   “Follow the path,” the voice that was all voices said. “You will find your way. And, Hagurosan,” it added as he turned to leave. “Childhood is the purest state. The pure of heart never leave it behind. Their life merely takes them on a circuitous route away from, and then back to it.

   Hagurosan didn’t understand, but he sensed that the voice that was all voices had finished. He bowed once to the statue at the centre of the shrine, gazed one last time upon his mortal face (he hadn’t realized he was that wrinkly!), then left the shrine at a quick pace, eager to see what the world was like.

   Hagurosan descended the Holy Mountain at a brisk trot, no longer aware of the ravages of old age. He passed through an incredible, sprawling, modern town, unrecognizable as the village where he had lived. What impressed him most wasn’t the new-style buildings, the fine roads, schools and playgrounds, but the look of joy and contentment on the faces of the people. They were no wealthier than those of most other towns, since all the money Hagurosan raised had gone towards the welfare of the children. But they were richer in spirit, and Hagurosan could now see that that was the greatest wealth of all.

   As he left the town, the path and countryside changed, and he found himself in a new world, much like the one he had left, but brighter and lighter. He sensed that this world could be as peaceful or invigorating as he wished it to be, loud or quiet, vast or secluded. If, one day, the people of his world found the perfection he believed they were capable of enjoying, it would be just like this, and then perhaps there would be no need for two worlds, and people of all times and places could live together as one.

   As Hagurosan walked, he felt his body change from that of an elderly man to that of a child. It was a rapid transformation, altering him in less than the blink of an eye. He stood, staring down at his tiny blemish-free hands and small crooked feet. Then someone shouted his name. A young girl was racing towards him, laughing and clapping. Other children followed, boys and girls, all as delighted as the girl in front.

   Hagurosan was confused for just an instant. Then he realized who the girl was — his mother. And behind her, his father and other relatives, and friends from both his youth and old age. All were familiar, even though all were now children.

   As Hagurosan’s mother embraced him, and the other children surrounded him, he was filled with the understanding of this new world. It was no more than what the voice that was all voices had told him. Childhood is the purest state, and the pure of heart always return to it. Life might be hard, and one might suffer with one’s trials. But always, at the end, lay the promise of childhood’s magic. For those who endured, the reward was a world of wonder, where every day was an adventure and every night a tableau of splendid, endless dreams.

   Once he understood, Hagurosan laughed and hugged the children around him with renewed delight. He had lost nothing during his years in the shrine, or missed out on anything. The spirits had not cheated him of his childhood. Nobody could be cheated of childhood, not in the long run. 

   Hagurosan’s band of friends and family broke apart after a while and drifted away. They would speak individually with Hagurosan later. They did not need to overwhelm him. There was no rush in this world. Hagurosan’s mother squeezed his hand tightly and smiled. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.

   “Yes,” he said.

   “Then let’s go!” she whooped and ran with Hagurosan down to where the multitudes of children were playing and would continue to play, in peace, security and love, for all the circles of time and the endless loops beyond.
 

end

 
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