(Originally aired 2022/04/30 - listen here)
There are several things that caught my interest about Ursula Whitcher’s story “The Spirits of Cabassus” in addition to the beautiful writing. One is the way that she picked up several threads of actual history to braid together into a story. The love spell – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “obsession spell” – that underlies the haunting is inspired by surviving magical inscriptions from Egypt that try to compel a return of affection. Two such inscriptions are clearly cast by a woman on a female object of desire. Ursula also drew in a thread from a passing reference to same-sex desire between female pilgrims on the Byzantine pilgrimage trail. Ursula will talk more about her inspirations in an interview in the next podcast episode. The other item that caught my interest was the handling of disability—not as a central theme of the story, but simply as one more facet of the main character that has shaped her life and will shape her choices.
This story is set in 4th century Cappadocia in what is modern-day Turkey. It was an era when Christianity had become well-established but was only beginning to evolve familiar forms and practices. Devotion often centered around specific communities and charismatic leaders. A network of pilgrimage sites had evolved across the ancient world with the side effect of encouraging travel and communication among ordinary people. Among other effects, it provided an approved context in which women could travel and see the world—all for a spiritual purpose, of course.
Our author for this episode, Ursula Whitcher, is a mathematician, writer, and editor whose work can be found in places including Cossmass Infinities, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the American Mathematical Society's Feature Column. I’m delighted and very proud that Ursula’s sale of “The Spirits of Cabassus” to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast became part of her qualifications to join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.
The narrator for today’s story is your host, that is, me.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
By Ursula Whitcher
Read by Heather Rose Jones
Prisca’s journey from Ancyra to Cabassus was one long fog of mud and cinnamon. Her hips and thighs ached from balancing on donkey-back and the spring damp crept inside her boots. Her brother alternated between praising the virgins of Cabassus for their sanctity and enumerating their family connections: “Holy Eunomia was mother to a bishop, have you not realized? And cousin to a senator as well.”
Prisca had read the bishop’s letters about the shrine the virgins tended and, stranger and more miraculous, the community they created, where senators’ cousins and wandering beggars lived alike in dignity. She nodded, softly at first, then vigorously enough to make the movement legible beneath her traveling shawl. The pain inside her temples pierced deeper, twisting like a cobbler’s awl, and the roadside fell into shadow.
“We’ll be there soon,” her brother said. But he grimaced at Prisca clutching her saddle horn and pushed his mount forward. He left a cloud of resin and hot spices, the scented oils he had smeared to take away the stink of mule-sweat. Behind Prisca, his servant grumbled and coughed.
They reached the virgins’ house in late evening, when true dusk layered over the clouds in Prisca’s vision. She was vaguely aware of two women, one tall and stern, one round-shouldered and wide-eyed. They were dressed alike, in plain dresses and dark, mannish cloaks.
Prisca’s brother began an oration of gratitude for hospitality. Her headache flared with each gesture, like a lantern-flame in the wind, if her skull was a wick. Prisca tried to focus on her feet, the clamminess of her boots, the pressure of cold stone—anything to keep from swaying. Voices echoed and throbbed. At last, through some wisdom she could not discern, the holy virgins made her brother stop talking.
Prisca found herself trailing the stooping woman into a room hung with a simple linen curtain. She managed to say, “Please convey my thanks to the holy widow Eunomia.”
The woman’s smile flashed, sharp as a well-honed knife. “Sleep, little sister. Sleep, and thank God, if you will.”
Prisca collapsed upon the narrow, rug-covered cot. It smelled a little like damp sheep, but there were none of the layers of rose-oil and travelers’ sweat that soaked into wayhouse beds. She did not think her headache would let her escape, but whether by divine providence or sheer exhaustion, she slept deep.
In the morning, Prisca’s headache was gone. She lay for a moment not crediting it, keeping her eyes closed, for fear light would reveal the shimmer of pain in abeyance. Instead she found slanting sunbeams and a phantasmic garden. The room’s walls were painted with vines and flowers, leaping fish and drooping bunches of grapes, all shaded so cleverly they seemed to spring out from the walls—but there was none of the damply green smell of a garden, only cold stone and that memory of a sheep. The room was huge, even divided by the curtain, more appropriate for the master or mistress of an estate than for one solitary guest. Prisca peeked to the other side and saw a bed like hers, empty, with a rough rug folded at the feet.
Her traveling bag was by the door. Prisca did her best to make herself presentable, pinning up her hair and shaking out her tunic, marveling all the while at the lightness of moving without pain. She whispered thanks for the continuing small miracle and went out into the courtyard.
The tall woman from the night before stood by the fountain. In the sunlight her face looked mottled pink, in the way that happens to very fair people. Her hair still showed some blonde, though most of it was cloud-white. “Come!” she told Prisca. “Let us make some bread.”
Prisca blinked with all the perspicacity of a newly awakened kitten. She had never made bread; it was not one of the duties of a well-born woman. But the surprising thing was not the task, which must be a part of the virgins’ ascetic practice, but the confidence with which the woman assigned it to her. There was no solicitude, no dampened cloths or snappish comparisons, simply a calm assumption that Prisca was capable of the work placed before her. She had never dared to pray for such a grace.
But as Prisca hesitated, the woman’s brow furrowed. “Your brother thinks this is a convenient place for women who have not found husbands. That is not what we are. We are making something new.”
Prisca had hoped that proximity to holiness would change her somehow, making the trials of existence easier to bear. She had failed to imagine what else she might do, besides survive. She dipped her head. “I fear I am still disoriented from the journey. Forgive me. You make a place where all people share in work alike—holy Eunomia?”
The woman’s smile was swift and cutting. It accentuated the deep lines in her face. “My name is Balsamea.”
She was named for balsam, that sweet and precious resin. It was a name for a prized possession. A name for a slave. But in that cutting smile, Prisca saw also a flash in the lamplight, the night before. The wide-eyed woman who showed Prisca to her room must have been Eunomia. And that trick of resemblance, the knife-edge smiles—the women must be sisters. Not in the sense of the virgins’ community, nor in the legal sense, but in the literal sense of children born to a man who owned many slaves.
It was easy to speak in the abstract of beggars praying side by side with senators’ cousins. It might be easy, in some ways, to be an unknown beggar: Prisca was learning that strangers meant new beginnings. But to be Balsamea, to grow up in the midst of family who denied her, to make herself a sister in faith instead of unacknowledged blood—this was a transformation as grand as the Eucharist.
“I would be honored by your instruction, holy Balsamea. Because truly, I have no idea where to begin.”
The woman’s laugh was kinder, now. “I suggest washing your hands.”
The bread they made was rough. It took stirring and pounding and a rest beside the fire. In the days that followed, Prisca’s arms ached and her hair filled with kitchen smoke. Her jaw grew strong from chewing. She learned the names of the other holy virgins and the rhythms of their days: the time spent spinning or sorting stones from lentils, the time spent standing with hands outstretched to God.
The weeks and months had rhythms too. On Sundays, they pressed into the dark church. On holy days, they went to the cemetery and remembered the martyrs of Cabassus, tipping communion wine into their graves and listening to the thrumming call of doves. When Prisca walked from the church into the glare of afternoon, she felt a pressure in her head like heavy thumbs. But otherwise, her headache stayed away.
At first, Prisca checked behind the curtain in her bedroom every morning, admiring the other half of the mural and wondering when another visitor would arrive. As the summer wore on, she stopped looking, content with the sisters she had already gained. But with the first rain of autumn, Prisca slipped back to her room to find a shawl. She heard, rising and falling with the drum of raindrops on the roof, a keening voice.
A woman was sprawled upon the other bed. She had pulled the pins out of her hair and scattered them by the window, so her dark curls spilled around her like a thundercloud. She was not classically beautiful—her eyebrows slashed up rather than forming a graceful arch, her nose was tilted, her cheeks displayed no blush, her mouth skewed wide—yet she was striking. More striking, perhaps, because in watching emotion flow across her face, one had the feeling of unique discovery.
In Prisca, that discovery was mixed with pain. Half of it was sympathetic, for the woman’s mobile face suggested agony of a sort Prisca had often felt and rarely dared display. The other half was bleak anticipation. There was a second cloud around the woman, a kind of darkened mist, clinging about her shoulders like her hair.
That rippling vision meant a headache looming. Prisca walked softly to her own bed and lay down. Sometimes, if she was very still, the pain passed quickly.
In this case, though she lay for an hour, fighting the urge to toss and turn at every sob from behind the curtain, the headache never arrived.
The woman’s name was Taesis. She came from Egypt. She had visited the hermits in the desert and the cities of Palestine in search of healing. At meals, the other virgins crowded about her, greedy for accounts of sacred places. Taesis’ face was stretched by pain, but she raised herself up like a queen among her maidens and told stories. She had been in Jerusalem before Easter. She walked among the graves on the Mount of Olives on Good Friday—“I could see the whole city scattered before me, like dice from my brother’s cup”—and followed a procession into the city, walking toward the climbing sun. Prisca struggled to find tasks that would prevent her from staring at the shadow wrapped around Taesis’ shoulders.
On the third or fourth evening, as they lay on either side of the curtain in the dark, Taesis asked, “Have I offended you?”
“Not at all!” Prisca said, too brightly.
There was a sigh and a soft thud. Taesis must be sitting up, attempting to stare through the curtain. “I know I am a temporary marvel. If there is some friendship I’ve disrupted, some long-planned meditation I’ve disturbed—tell me, and I will try to make it right.”
Prisca’s face burned. She was not used to being observed, but Taesis would be—there was no way to ignore that fluid loveliness. The mist that clung to Taesis was probably some trick of Prisca’s mind, the headache only partly in abeyance, but speaking of it would sound arrogant, as if Prisca thought herself some sort of prophet.
She offered up a different kind of guilt: “I have found healing in this place, and you have not. It isn’t fair.” And it might, in a way, be Prisca’s fault. Had not her brother written letters near and far, bragging of Prisca’s blessing in recovery as if he had created the miracle himself? Perhaps that had drawn Taesis on a long and fruitless journey.
Taesis’ laugh held the murmur of the turtledoves. “Nothing is fair! Will you bear the burdens of the whole world by yourself?”
Prisca huffed her own laugh, startled. She did sound arrogant, by that description, yet Taesis’ tone had been kind. In apology, she asked, “May I have a tale of your journey?”
“Because you missed the best parts?” But Taesis softened her teasing by continuing, “I will tell you the true best thing, though I fear there is not much in it of holiness. I took passage from Alexandria to Jerusalem on one of the great grain ships. I slept beneath a tarp on the deck, and the cat that ate the ship’s mice slept at my feet. I stood at the prow in the mornings, feeling the wind blow against my face. I thought it would blow the thorns away from me, leave all that in the past, with the crying of the gulls.”
“But it didn’t.”
“It didn’t. But the pain is always better when I am going somewhere new. What of you? How was your journey here?”
“Too ordinary to speak of.”
“Try me. Did your donkey bite?”
“Never. Except—” Except it had bitten Prisca’s brother once, while he was trying to recollect a quotation of Plutarch, and he had nearly dropped a saddle-bag in the mud. Prisca found herself telling the story, which somehow led into the childhood game where her brother portrayed a martyr and she was all the lions. “We should have found a cat like your ship-friend, for realism.”
“I hope you had better friends than your brother and stray cats!”
Prisca, by and large, had not. She felt as if that might be changing—but this was an illusion born of Taesis’ charm. The other woman would be off to the next holy site soon enough, no matter how much fun it was to trade stories of the impossibleness of brothers.
All the next day, Prisca tried not to wonder when Taesis would go. But the only question she had to puzzle at instead was the nature of the cloud that wrapped around her. If it was not a headache, might it be a demon? Was it heresy for Prisca to believe she might see such a thing? At other times, she had noticed shimmering lights, but those had always proved the headache’s harbingers.
At last, Prisca decided that the foolishness of dwelling on her worries was outweighed by the foolishness of ignoring the wisdom all around her. She took her tale to Balsamea, who said wryly, “This sounds like an enthusiasm, not a stormcloud.”
Prisca blushed ungracefully—she was sure her nose was reddest—and explained again about her headaches and the visual distortions they brought with them.
“And your headaches come from smoke?”
“They have followed me ever since I grew into a woman. I don’t know where they come from.”
“They come from smoke. I’ve seen it when you step inside the church and the purifying resin wafts your way. You look toward the altar joyfully, but your face grows tight.”
“But I’ve been breathing kitchen smoke since my first morning here.”
“Well, then we’ll ask the priest to burn bread instead of myrrh, next Easter.” Balsamea punctuated her joke by slamming dough into the table.
Prisca burned a loaf in earnest, while pondering Balsamea’s suggestion. If wafting incense kindled her headaches, then the cloud around Taesis must be something else. But perhaps the source of her headaches was the smell of incense, and not the literal smoke?
Prisca had a little pot of oil scented with lilies, myrrh, and saffron. She had not anointed herself since coming to Cabassus: the holy virgins were not given to primping after baths. She uncorked it carefully, and breathed deep. The sweetness was bewildering, almost unreal, though cut through with the green hum of myrrh.
Pain crept up gradually, beginning with an uneasiness in the stomach and an unwillingness to stoop over desks or walk quickly. Lights did not shimmer, though any light seemed too bright, and soon Prisca found herself lying on her bed again, cursing her own doubt. The headache was simultaneously dull and excruciating: in a few short weeks, Prisca had forgotten how boring it was to do nothing but hurt. She should have trusted Balsamea’s wisdom, and not tried to double-check.
Prisca arose the next day muzzy-headed but determined. She would imitate Odysseus in the legend and stop up the offending organ—in this case, her nose—with wax. If Taesis was wreathed in perfume made visible, blocking the scent should make its shadow disappear.
Shaping wax so that it plugged her nose without falling out or making an unsightly mess was harder than Prisca expected. It took multiple attempts, all the while peering into her little round mirror like a girl awaiting a suitor, before Prisca managed something she was satisfied with, and by then Taesis had gone to join the others at morning prayer. She had to do it all over again that evening. She drew back the curtain cautiously, feeling cool night air on her tongue. Shadows leapt everywhere in the lamplight. The mist around Taesis caught and hold the light, turning almost gold.
Prisca bit her tongue in frustration. The plan had seemed so good.
“Come sit by me,” said Taesis.
Prisca obeyed, resting gingerly at the edge of the bed. When Taesis rested an arm over her shoulders, she jumped, making an ungainly splurting sound in an effort not to snort out the wax.
Taesis straightened. “Prisca, why have you been gazing at me, if you do not wish to embrace in friendship?”
The splurting turned into choking. Prisca had to flee behind her side of the curtain and wipe her face with a handkerchief. At last she returned to Taesis’ side and said, cautious, “There is a kind of cloud around you.”
“Oh! Do you believe it is a demon?”
“But it isn’t—in this holy place—I can’t believe that your own actions—”
The smile dropped from Taesis’ lips. Sitting this close, Prisca could see the starkness in her face, the hollows that the floating mist had smoothed. “Do you not know how desperately I have wished that my enemy had a name and a shape, so I could battle it?”
Prisca clasped Taesis’ hand. In some odd corner of her mind, she was surprised to find her own hand was smaller. “I feared I saw my own pain, instead of your true face.”
“But there is something there, and you can see it? Your insight is greater than every holy man in all Jerusalem.”
“It cannot be a demon, then. One of them would have recognized it.”
“Some other kind of spirit, perhaps? Oh, I wish I knew its name.”
“Perhaps...” Prisca had tried once, shamefully, to cast a spell to take away her headache. It had failed, and she had shuddered at her own foolishness, but she still remembered what she had learned. “I memorized the names of angels, once. Perhaps if we called upon them?”
Hope swept across Taesis’ face like branching lightning.
Prisca and Taesis prepared their ritual in the Cabassus cemetery, because it was the holiest place that they could go. They said prayers on behalf of the martyrs first. Then Prisca arranged three lines of clay lamps, lifting up their wicks and filling them with sweet oil. Her fingers felt thick. She was terrified she would spill oil on the ground, but when she glanced at Taesis she saw a face intent, confident. Confident in her.
Prisca made a triangle of vowels, those powerful sounds that gave a soul to every word, beginning with alpha and expanding—a, ae, aeê—until she reached omega. On the page, those letters had looked like so many pebbles. Now they gathered momentum, so as her chant continued, Prisca felt less and less like a child scattering rocks, and more like an avalanche, rushing downhill.
At the final recitation of omega, she lit the last wick, enclosing Taesis in a triangle of flame. Prisca took a deep breath and called upon the heavenly host: “Saot Sabaoth!” Then, holding her hands open, she issued a command: “Reveal yourself! Reveal yourself! Reveal yourself!”
The flames leapt. Taesis’ features fell into ordinary shadow, and shame swept over Prisca, leaving heat between her breasts and in the hinges of her knees. How had she dared to set herself up as a magician? Was she so starved for any word of kindness?
But when Prisca looked up, a second woman stood beside Taesis, on the ground between the candles. She was shorter and rounder than Prisca, the kind of woman who wore her strophium wide for comfort. Her hair was formed into many braids, clinging tight to her head, and her tunic was kilted up around her knees. Her eyes must have been brown in life, but they burned now like banked embers. She raised her chin to stare at Prisca, revealing harsh bruises in the hollows of her throat.
Those were thumbprints. The woman had been murdered.
Prisca looked at Taesis for one long, agonizing moment, but her eyes were wide with wonder, not with guilt.
Very well, then. It was Prisca’s task to understand the ghost that she had summoned. The spirit’s awful death must have forced restlessness upon her, so that she could not sleep between death and the resurrection. Perhaps the curse had transferred. “What is your name?”
“I am Mesiesis, daughter of Tapollos.” The ghost spoke Greek with a thick accent, blurring her alphas and omegas together. Acquaintance with Taesis made it easier to decipher.
“I am Prisca, daughter of Petrus.”
Mesiesis smiled, revealing flame between her teeth. “The other one was not nearly so polite.”
“What other one?” Prisca asked, heart sinking.
“Why, the first person who burned incense and set commands upon me.”
“Tell me,” Prisca said, with the false gentleness used by every doctor who had ever tried to heal her, “what commands you have been given.”
The ghost turned her eyes toward the sky, remembering, and recited, “Give me advantage over Taesis, whom Nilogenia bore. Burn her, set her on fire, inflame her in liver, heart, and spirit. Torment her body night and day, and force her to rush forth from every place and every house, burning, until she comes again to me with love.”
“It’s real,” said Taesis softly, cupping her hands above a candle flame. “I did not think the fire could be real.”
“Do you know what man might have cursed you?” Prisca asked.
Even before she saw her friend’s bitter smile, she knew that it was hopeless. Anyone and everyone would love Taesis.
“What will you give to me,” Mesiesis asked, “if I tell you the name?”
What would a ghost want? Prayers? Revenge? It was probably a sin to bargain with her—but that was arrogance. The greatest sin against Mesiesis happened before she was laid in the ground.
Perhaps Prisca was approaching this the wrong way. What was it like to be a ghost? To haunt a place, unseen and unacknowledged? It must be rather like being sick, the crushing unavoidable boredom. Mesiesis might have been dead for longer than Prisca had been alive.
Could Prisca offer distraction? “I will read to you, tales of the saints and histories of far-off places, so even if you do not sleep, you may still dream.”
Mesiesis blinked, and then narrowed her eyes, considering. “Would you teach me to read?”
How did one give a lesson to a ghost? She could not shift a stylus or hold a scroll open. Prisca envisioned herself muttering letters, with all the repetitiveness of prayer, and none of the glory. But how selfish would it be not to try? “I will do my best.”
The ghost regarded Prisca for a long moment, and then nodded. “It is a bargain. I was commanded by Anastasia, born of Syra.”
Taesis keened, raising her face to the sky and flailing her arms, loud enough to wake the martyrs. Mesiesis tried in vain to hold her.
“Don’t!” cried Prisca. “You’ll light your dress on fire!”
Taesis subsided in a weird giggling lump. Prisca wanted to go to her, but she was afraid to cross the lines of lamps. Mesiesis sat cross-legged and patted Taesis’ shoulder, or the air above it.
“Who is Anastasia?” Prisca asked, once Taesis seemed calmer. This set off another round of keening, but at last she learned the tale.
Anastasia had once been Taesis’ friend. “I know—at least, I hope—you find me beautiful. But Anastasia seemed to have every blessing of God upon her. She could embroider a bird that seemed ready to leap from the cloth, and sing like that bird’s song.” Their parents had neighboring estates, and the girls were in and out of each others’ houses from nearly the time that they could walk. “Once we reached womanhood, our friendship turned to love. We used to cling to each other and ask whether our souls could fuse.”
Mesiesis rolled her eyes and pointed to her tunic, which partly overlapped with Taesis’ knee.
“But you fell out?” asked Prisca.
“She married my brother.”
“Our fathers were so proud of themselves. They were neighbors. My brother loved her almost as much as I did. Maybe because I did.”
“So you went to Jerusalem?”
“I went first to Alexandria. I stayed with a cousin. I made so many friends. Anastasia told me that nothing had to change—she would love me forever—but I could not. I loved my brother. At first she wrote me teasing letters. She drew pictures of falcons.”
“And then the claws sank into my heart”—Mesiesis looked abashed—”and I began my journey.”
“But you can write to her now, can you not? Your suffering—she cannot let it last, if she still loves you.”
“I hope that would have been true. Anastasia’s life had been so blessed, she treated pain like something out of legend.”
Beside her, silent, Mesiesis mouthed, “Very large estate.”
“But why not now?” Prisca insisted.
Taesis took a long, shuddering breath, her keening exhausted. “I had a letter from my brother when I was in Tripolis. Anastasia died while bearing his son.”
Prisca longed to hold her. But if she broke the line of flames, Mesiesis might disappear, and she still had questions. “These curses, they are often anchored by a tablet or a scroll. Perhaps, if we went to Mesiesis’ grave, we might destroy it.”
Mesiesis drew herself up, eyes burning like the sun, tunic caught in an invisible stormwind. “You cannot! You must not!”
“Why not?” asked Prisca, forcing herself to calm.
“I lived my whole life in the same mud town, and then decades of death underneath the mud in the same town, and now you want to send me back? I am not a broken pot, that you can frown at and toss in the trash heap!”
Prisca’s fine words about the joys of reading had been discarded, the moment she saw a solution to the puzzle. She was abashed.
“I see,” Taesis said slowly, “why the pain lifted when I traveled to a new place.”
“I sent you rushing forth the first time by command,” confessed Mesiesis. “But the second time, that was for joy.”
“So if I continue to travel, you will lift your torments? Or tease me in gentler ways than with claws of fire?”
“Your friend must teach me to read, first.”
“She could come with us.”
Taesis’ face was wreathed in smiles now, forgotten tear-tracks glittering like starlight. Prisca felt long slow warmth, like the sun. She could go forth, invited for herself and not out of obligation, with her dear friend and a curious, stubborn ghost. She could see the towers of Constantinople and the churches of Jerusalem.
Prisca imagined standing at the prow of a ship, as Taesis had described it. She had to guess what the ocean might be like: a great flat expanse, perhaps, like a river multiplied, reflecting the brightness of the sky. It was easier to envision her companions. Taesis’ hand would curl around hers, pressing each finger as if remembering a song played on the lyre. Mesiesis—Mesiesis would soar like a bird. Every evening Prisca would make a record, describing the places they had visited and the holy people they had met, to share with her friends here in Cabassus.
But even in imagination, the sunlight on the water hurt. Travel meant the rose-oil and dirt of wayhouses, and the long slow grind of her headache returning. Prisca contemplated stuffing her nose with wax every morning and evening, the way other women arranged their hair. Eventually, she supposed, it would become routine.
But that was not the rhythm Prisca wanted for her life. She loved the feeling of flour between her fingers and the careful planning for each holy day, the gleam of Balsamea’s smiles at a precise observation. She did not want to leave the holy virgins and the community they made. She wanted to teach others how it worked. She was growing into this place.
In truth, Prisca thought, she might not have known how to listen to Mesiesis, had she not first learned how to hear Balsamea. “Cabassus is my home.”
Taesis sighed—but only temporarily. “Still, I can visit! And write letters. Perhaps Mesiesis might even consent to haunt you with a message?”
Mesiesis grinned. “You are learned women. You can invent a spell.”
Prisca wanted, in this moment, to find something much simpler. She picked her way gingerly between the lamps, until she was at the center of the triangle, holding Taesis close. She felt a strange hot breeze around and inside her.
They were, of a surety, making something new.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Spirits of Cabassus” by Ursula Whitcher, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
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