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Nancy Means Wright

 

Chapter One

A Puppeteer Loses Her Touch

Wednesday, September 19

 

    The puppeteers, in black masks and stretch leotards that threw Fay Hubbard's belly into mortifying relief, were lined up behind their marionettes.  They stood in plain sight as if to say that this was a play, not reality at all, and that the children who were squatting, wide-eyed, on the floor of the Branbury Village School needn't worry when the bad fairy came in to prick young Beauty and put her to sleep for a hundred years.  It was all artifice. 
     Why then was Fay feeling so anxious, when, good heavens, she'd been in forty-odd plays in her checkered past.  Usually after a few unnerving moments when she first walked out on the stage, she'd get over the shakes and roll forward into the heart of the drama.  Offstage for a scene, she'd be raring to go back on; and when the curtain dropped at the end she could hardly wait for the curtain call, to drink in the applause of the crowd like caramel cream. 
     But this play had been going for ten minutes already, and Fay knew what would happen in the end.  Beauty would be awakened by the handsome Prince, yes.  But puppeteer Marion had written a new ending for the classic Sleeping Beauty tale and it wasn't a pleasant one.  It was quite sad, in fact; it dredged up all of Fay's anxieties about dying.  She wasn't alone in her peeve with the ending—two people had stood up and booed after the Burlington performance, and one had actually threatened Marion. 
     Could she blame them?  Fay was a romantic—never mind she was visibly aging, a wrinkle a day.  Give her a happy ending any time.  Bring on the prince!  So what if he reeked of tobacco and garlic? 
     "Bar the door!"  cried the puppet Queen with a flourish of strings and pink satin arms: "The witch is here!"  And Fay, as the good fairy who'd come to bless the baby Beauty, shoved a papier mâché rock against the door.  Or shoved it almost to the door, for Fay wasn't wholly competent at pulling strings.  Neither literally nor metaphorically, she felt, for she seldom prevailed with anyone—ex-husband, play directors, the cop who'd nailed her for speeding this morning.  Even the three foster kids she cared for, one of whom, the oldest, Chance, was operating a fairy and wanting out of here.  The girl was already checking her watch. 
     The onlookers squealed, and in burst the uninvited guest: the nasty Nightshade, clad all in red—ruby red heels and glittery spikes of orangy-red hair.  Operated by Marion's husband, Cedric, the witch hovered motionless and menacing by the door while the king and queen, worked by Marion's multiple controller, blessed the fairies with hugs. 
     Now the witch was on the move in her blood-red gown, her carved features cross as a cat locked out on a cold porch.  The queen cradled the child close to her silk bosom; she'd been made in the image of beautiful mulatto Marion, a woman of forty-two who looked eighteen with her shiny black curls and pale brown skin tinted pink on chin and cheeks.  While here was Fay with her wild mop of gray-brown untinted hair, and breasts that seemed to sag a little more each day as she hurtled through her fifties toward that big Six-O. 
     "One day your Beauty will prick her finger and die!"  Nightshade screeched in Cedric's cracked falsetto.  Cackling horribly, she hurled a live rose at Beauty and a drop of red ink sprang out on the infant's forehead. 
     "She shouldn't of throwed that flower," a child squealed in the front row, "it weren't nice," and everyone laughed.  For a moment the ice was broken.  And when Fay's fairy in a yellow tutu, shouted, "Wait!  Here is my gift, and I say Beauty will not die," the whole room burst into applause, and a tremor like a scatter of frozen peas skittered down Fay's spine. 
     There was a moment's reprieve, a short intermission of cookies and Kool Aid, while backstage in the chaos of costumes, tiaras, masks, strings and feathers, puppeteer Marion was sipping her herb tea and arguing with Cedric about her new ending.  And for once Fay was on Cedric's side.  Who wanted Beauty to wither into an old woman before the prince could consummate the marriage?  A century later the wedding day would come and the prince would find his bride tottering down the aisle in her motheaten gown? 
     "It's revolting," Cedric growled.  "The whole idea of Beauty shriveling up in front of my eyes—" he corrected himself "—the prince's eyes.  You don't know human nature, Marion." 
     "Oh but I do," said practical Marion, who was Cedric's senior by twelve years and didn't try to hide the fact.  "I'll age.  When you're fifty-eight, love, I'll be seventy.  Think of that.  And will you banish me from your bed?"  She narrowed her eyes at him.  "Anyway, who's going to keep her looks for a hundred years?  It's what life is.  You can't hide that from kids.  They can't live out their lives in a fairy tale." 
     Marion turned to unhook the teenage Beauty puppet on its brand new controller—she'd hear no rebuttal.  Fay caught Cedric Fox's eye and blinked in sympathy.  But the blue Fox eye was cold.  Cedric wasn't happy, he hadn't been consulted.  He hadn't wanted to be part of the Valentini Theater in the first place.  But then he'd lost his engineering job, Marion had a thriving troupe going, and so he jumped in, head, hands and cash.  And now was ready to jump out, judging by the scowl on his thin lips. 
     And take his money with him?  Fay wondered.  How much money was left?  Prodigal Marion too often performed for free, the scowl said.  Schools shouldn't have to pay, she insisted. 
     "Stupid," he told Fay, his thirty-year-old forehead pleating.  "We're at a elementary school, for chrissake.  And you know what she's thinking up now?  Instead of a prince giving the kiss in the end?" 
     Fay didn't know.  She untangled a couple of strings and scrubbed at a stain in the queen's gown.  The hem was ripped, too, there wasn't time to sew it.  Anyway, Fay was no seamstress.  Back home, she'd even wrapped her mama goat's split hock in a yard of duct tape—Fay was raising goats to make goat cheese, trying to make a living.  The marionettes were little more than a volunteer job. 
     "A vampire," Cedric said.  "A vampire to give Beauty the wakeup smooch?  Ridiculous."  He tightened his hands around the witch's neck as though this was what he'd like to do to his wife. 
     Neanderthal, Fay thought.  Kids loved vampires--though personally, they weren't her own cup of tea.  She took a step back, a shivery breath.  In the coming scene her fairy was to carry Beauty off the stage and Fay worried about dropping her.  She signalled the puppeteer for help. 
     "Here," said Marion, putting down her herb tea to show Fay how.  It was all so easy when Marion did it.  After all, she'd studied under a puppeteer father.  Fay was merely a failed actress, substituting a puppet for her own face before an audience. 
     "Never mind Cedric, he'll come round.  I'll work on him," Marion said with more confidence than Fay could muster up.  Fay had seen Cedric's icy blue eye—it was like staring into the eye of a hurricane. 
     "Places," Marion was calling out.  "Scene Two!"  The children were reassembling, Fay saw her foster boy Beets squat in the front row with the cell phone his father had sent—it had better not ring!  The teachers were yelling, "No talking!  No drinks in the assembly room!" 
      "We're on, guys," said Marion.  Fay took a breath, and the four masked puppeteers moved along behind the stage with their stringed puppets. 
     It was Beauty's eighteenth birthday.  The marionette took her place in the center, a smiling creature with black flowing curls like her creator, a white organdy gown threaded with gold and glass.  Balloons and paper lanterns floated overhead; blue, yellow, and pink paper flowers fluttered in the palace garden.  The teachers made shushing noises again and the scene began. 
     One by one the fairies arrived with gifts of books, slippers, bracelets, flowered gowns; Chance's fairy dropped chocolates at Beauty's feet.  The taped music rose to a crescendo and the door swung open to reveal—Nightshade again!  Nightshade, her ugly face almost hidden behind a bouquet of thorny red roses.  The Queen scurried to shut her out but Nightshade prevailed.  With deadly accuracy, she flung the bouquet at Beauty; the puppet squealed with pleasure—and then pain as she pricked her finger.  Beauty slumped sideways over the embroidered arm of her chair. 
     "She will not die!"  Fay's fairy shouted.  But out front there was an outcry from teachers and children.  Fay looked down to see Beauty's controller with its multiple strings collapse into a tangled heap, and puppeteer Marion gag, then stumble off the set, clutching her chest and throat, as if she, too, were headed for a hundred years of sleep. 

#

    Fay didn't believe in the paranormal, but this time the witch's thorns had pricked her disbelief.  Marion, it seemed, when she and Cedric arrived at the hospital behind the ambulance, had truly been struck down by a witch. 
     "You needn't stay," Cedric told Fay.  "Someone has to go back and pack up."  His hand was on his wife's shoulder where she lay in a blue hospital gown on the emergency room gurney; he was stroking her clavicle almost absent-mindedly, his jay eyes fixed on the boxes of white surgical gloves attached to the wall. 
     "I'm staying," Fay said.  Poor Marion lay on her side, gazing with dilated pupils at the ochre wall, her lips the color of the surgical gloves, skin red as Nightshade's gown, her heartbeats as rapid as Fay's old washing machine in a spin cycle.  She'd been vomiting up blood; quarts of water, it seemed, oozed from her skin.  Her blood pressure was soaring.  She'd retched over and over in the ambulance, the medic said, might have swallowed some of it before they got her onto the gurney. 
      The young male nurse, his green gown spattered with blood, had finished taking her pulse.  Fay didn't have to ask to know it was fast—like a speedboat headed for a rocky shore.  Marion's body was shaking now, convulsing; Cedric's eyes went back to her.  The nurse held the patient's tongue until the trembling stopped. 
     "She's not an epileptic," Cedric told the nurse, "if that's what you're thinking.  She's perfectly healthy, never sick a day.  Must be something she ate.  Why isn't the doctor here?" 
     "He's coming," the male nurse said, trying to sound calm.  He stuck a thermometer in Marion's ear. 
     "Off wi' his head!"  Marion screeched and flung the instrument back at him. 
     "Marion," Cedric admonished, "this young man is trying to help you." 
     "Off wi' his head!"  she cried again, like the Red Queen in her Alice in Wonderland show, and the frustrated nurse gave up on the thermometer. 
     "You don't need that thing to see she's in a fever," Fay told the fellow.  "It's all right to be angry, Marion.  Go right ahead."  She patted the sick woman's arm. 
     "Get the doctor.  Now," Cedric Fox told the nurse, pointing at the door, and the man blanched.  He'd been trying.  This was a busy place, in a college town where students were always trying to kill themselves with drink, drugs, skates, skiis, snowboards, or simply meandering across highways as if they were immortal. 
     "Queens neva make bargains," Marion cried, her pupils a shiny black, her breath quick and chugging like a train gathering speed.  She pointed a finger at the nurse, who was frantically ringing for assistance, his temples awash.  They hadn't trained him for this, Fay thought. 
     "Queens neva—" Marion shouted, and Cedric cried, "Enough, Marion!  Lie still, damn it!  The doctor's coming." 
     "…make bargains," Marion finished.  Then, in a moment of lucidity: "Carry on the show, both of you—promise me!"  Fay nodded and held up a pair of yes fingers.  "Chance can do Beauty." 
     "We will, but you get better, love."  Fay wiped her friend's head with a tissue.  "And no bargains, no.  You can say whatever you like."  She glared at Cedric, who was sweating profusely; he was pulling off the black sweatshirt he'd thrown on over his leotard. 
     Cedric wanted things orderly.  Well or ill, his wife should behave in a quiet, cool way.  He preferred the way she ran Valentini's Marionettes, her finger on every pulse, marionettes laid out in order of entrance, scripts firmly in hand, the ending pre-planned—if not always acceptable to its performers. 
     Was it Fay's imagination, or was Marion's comely face beginning to wrinkle in front of their eyes as she lay back on the flat gurney pillow?  No, it was still forty-two-year old Marion there in the loose hospital gown they'd wrapped her in on arrival.  The light brown skin mottled red but cooling.  The rich brown eyes closed now under puffy lids, as though the puppeteer was slowly disappearing, burrowing deep into herself.  Cedric called her name but there was only the barest twitch of cheek muscle.  "She's sleeping," he said.  "That's good.  She'll be all right."  He smiled.  Marion was being a good girl.  She would soon wake and life would be in order again.  She'd make his dinner. 
     At last.  The doctor.  The nurse making way for his entrance, like the doctor was a prince coming to release Marion from sleep.  He was bending low over his patient, hands and instruments probing.  "Chronic ailments?"  he asked.  "Diabetes?  Heart?  Cancer?" 
     Cedric shook his head, annoyed.  It was all on the information sheet he'd completed when they came in.  Obviously, his face said, the doctor hadn't read it. 
     "What did she have for breakfast?  For lunch?  Dinner last night?"  Questions Cedric couldn't wholly answer.  Marion was up at six each day, she breakfasted alone, he told the doctor, though Fay, who milked her goats at a quarter of five in a sleepy trance, couldn't blame the fellow for staying in bed. 
     "Um, dinner last night, yes, well, roast rabbit," Cedric said.  "We had rabbit.  Shot it myself.  It was raiding our garden.  The last of the lettuce, cukes, tomatoes.  Marion cooks.  I take care of the garden." 
     Fay knew, for Marion had e-mailed her.  "Cedric shot Peter Rabbit," Marion had typed.  "I was sketching from the window and Ced went out and shot him.  How could he do that!" 
     The doctor's scruffy eyebrows drew together.  As though who knew what the rabbit had been eating?  A rabid rabbit?  He took notes.  He appeared calm as a summer day, not a cloud crossing his antiseptic face. 
     "Nothing more you know of?"  he asked.  Cedric held out his empty palms.  And finally the doctor swung into action.  "Some kind of food poisoning, I expect," he told the clipboard he'd been holding.  He threw out orders: gastric lovage… tannic acid solution… hold the tongue when she gags… something else Fay couldn't hear, since she was being summarily dismissed, literally pushed out of the room.  Only Cedric could remain, the doctor said, the legal relation. 
     The one who'd poisoned her?  a serpent hissed in Fay's head. 
     The last word she heard as the door swung shut was coma.

 

 

Chapter Two

Falling Leaves and a Phone Call

Thursday, September 20

 

    "And I had to pack up the show," Chance was saying.  "The school principal was sorry about Marion, but she wants a makeup show when Marion recovers.  So I told her next weekend."  They were standing in the kitchen, the foster girl's voice coming from the depths of the refrigerator where she was searching for a can of leftover cranberry juice that young Apple had already drunk.  Fay had seen the girl with it. 
     "But Marion may not be ready by then."  Fay was in her jeans, pouring iced tea into a thermos, about to milk the goats.  Or attempt to.  They'd be starving by now, those goats, the three youngest bleating like newborns, though they were a year old. 
     Chance had almost emptied the fridge which Fay had freshly stocked early Wednesday morning.  Already Fay regretted telling her friend Ruth Willmarth she'd transfer goats and foster kids to her own place for a year while Ruth went on an extended honeymoon to Ireland with her Irish lover.  But what could Fay do?  Her life had been in stasis, she couldn't land an acting job these dog days, even though she had equity. 
     "Then you or Cedric do the show," Chance said with her mouth full.  "Count me out anyway.  I'll be in Montreal.  Me and Billy the Kid." 
     The boyfriend Billy was no kid in spite of his nickname, brought on by the Stetson hat he sometimes wore; he was at least in his late twenties, too old for Chance at this tender stage in her life.  But Fay let it go.  "We can't two of us do all those marionettes, sweetie, and you know it.  Marion needs you to do Beauty.  It was her last" she paused.  She'd been about to say "her last wish."  But Marion was still alive, wasn't she?  Though in a coma.  She'd be all right, Fay was reciting an hourly mantra.  She'll be all right, all right, all right, all…. 
     "Just do it," she told the foster girl.  "You can go to Montreal Sunday if you have to." 
     "Foo Fighters" will be gone then," Chance shouted about some band with a crazy name.  She was always shouting these days it seemed, as if the whole world had gone deaf and she had to make herself heard.  Two more years and she'd be on her own, no marionette then, her sucked-in cheeks said.  No controlling strings.  She'd given Fay a hard time from the day the former foster mother left. 
     "Marion wants to read that revision of your play," Fay said softly. 
     Chance was working on a kids' play about goats.  Goats that were scapegoats, nanny goats, billy-goat-gruffs, man-goats, goatsuckers.  It was all one big metaphor, Fay couldn't understand the whole of it.  The goats would keep Apple busy with costumes, too; the nine-year-old girl had quick fingers.  Fewer seizures now that she was on the right medication.  Foster kids, Fay had discovered, didn't come without issues.  And now Apple's brother Beets had been suspended from school for five days for hitting a classmate with a green applea knockout, apparently.  Fay couldn't condone that! 
     "I thought I'd paint them green," Chance said.  "Green goats.  Green like frogs, but with hooves and hocks and maybe a human head like Pan." 
     "Dionysius," Fay said. 
     "Who?" 
     "The Greek equivalent of Pan.  He played a pipe and ambushed young girls.  Altogether a naughty fellow." 
     "Like Cedric Fox," Chance said, slurping the leftover juice out of the juice bottle. 
     "What?" 
     "I saw him.  Coming out of Alibi." 
     "And?"  Alibi was the local lounge.  You could get snacks there, but the fare was mostly alcohol.  College students and high school juniors like Chance were checked and rechecked at the door.  But Chance had said coming "out," which meant she was outside looking in when she saw Cedric.  At least Fay hoped so. 
     "With a woman.  It was getting dark, he was probably high.  I could see them as I was leaving the craft center.  I was doing prototypes for my Billy-Goat-Gruff." 
     "And?" 
     Chance gave a sly smile.  "Cedric had her by the waist.  They were waltzing on down the alley past the craft center.  That's all I can tell you.  And it wasn't Marion." 
     "Could've been a sister or something?  A relative?" 
     "This was no relative."  Chance smirked, as though Fay simply wasn't with it.  Which was partly true; Fay hadn't had a real date in years since she'd left the old lover and come to live in Cousin Glenna's non-working Vermont farm. 
     "I'm off to the barn," Fay said.  "But if you see this woman again, know who she is, let me know, okay?  Just curious, that's all," she said when the foster girl looked at her.  She opened the door and let the wind fan her hot forehead.  The mountains rose lavender-cool beyond the red barn.  They'd quit mowing the grass now, the pasture was a lake of blue vetch and Queen Anne's lace.  She liked it that way.  September wasn't yet October, the leaves weren't ready to fall.  Falling leaves were depressing. 
     "I know who that woman is I saw," Chance said, running past Fay to hop on her bicycle.  "She's the high school French teacher." 
     "Omigod.  Young?  Attractive?"  Fay called after her, thinking of Marion in her coma. 
And her husband philandering about with another woman?       "Drop-dead-gorgeous," said Chance, and she peeled off down Flint Road toward Billy the old Kid. 

#

    There was more than milking or cheesemaking this afternoon that held Fay in thrall—already the puppeteering had put Fay's Goats 'R' Us cheeses behind, and still orders were coming in like flies.  But today, God forbid, she had to trim the hooves--it was on the "How to Raise Goats" list.  Overgrown hooves, the vet warned, would turn under around the sides and maybe grow out in front like elf shoes.  The younger Nubian goats were okay for now, their long ears flapping as they dashed about in the pasture.  But Hester needed emergency hoof help. 
     The word "emergency" made the perspiration pop out again on her temples.  There had been no word from Cedric, who'd promised to call.  Was he with the nubile French teacher now, or was he—and he'd better be—at Marion's side in the hospital?  For when she awoke from the coma? 
     "No!"  It was Ariadne, butting at the pail of milk.  "Get," Fay shouted.  "Get, girl!" 
     She coralled Hester and brought her to heel in the barn.  The instructions were laid out on a stool.  "Start by cleaning out the manure and curd with a hoof pick."  A sticky, stinky job at best.  Hester bleated, Fay had pricked the toe.  She got the ewe in a grip and trimmed off the overgrown sides, down to the white sole.  The beast lunged out of Fay's grasp. 
     "Need help?"  It was white-haired Willard Boomer, her Willard of all trades: signmaker, grasscutter, tree grower.  Willard, who worked for free in return for the use of the derelict trailer where he kept his tools and model trains and sometimes slept.  Willard Boomer, who was in love with Fay but didn't know it.  Or if he knew it, had no idea how to show it.  After all, it was only a year ago when he was fifty-three that his mother had crept quietly into the grave and liberated her shy, maverick son. 
     He didn't wait for an answer, just dragged the ewe back into the barn and held her down while Fay took a wet toothbrush to scrub the sides of the hoof.  "Good job," he said, and she smiled.  Willard smelled of new mown grass and dried paint—maybe a little manure where the goat had kicked him, but it was all right.  The ewe held still in his hands while Fay trimmed slices off the hard side nail to level out the hoof.  It wasn't too hard.  It was like making a meatloaf, you just followed directions and then played it by ear. 
     When they were done trimming he stayed to share a cup of iced tea from her thermos.  He wanted to know how Marion was.  "Something she ate, you said?" 
     "Well, we don't know that.  Just the medic's surmise.  She and Cedric had lunch at the local Foods Co-op.  I'm praying it's just a little food poisoning and not--" She said a quick prayer to herself.  "They have to analyze everything, I guess.  See what else she ate besides the rabbit Cedric caught last night for dinner." 
     "Drank anything between scenes?" 
     "Oh.  Well, I don't recall but—well yes, I saw her with the usual container of herb tea she'd buy at the co-op.  She always carries a thermos.  Nothing unusual." 
     "Leaves it backstage?  Where someone could—ho!"  The ewe moved and he cornered it with a headlock. 
     "Backstage, I guess, yes, in a classroom.  The kids aren't supposed to enter.  But, hey!  out of here, Ariadne!  You want your hooves clipped, do you?" 
     They worked a while in silence. 
     Then Willard said, "You heard from that guy?"  Willard never called Cedric by his name—he'd had some sort of run-in with him in town, never said what it was.  Though it wasn't easy to get under Willard's skin, so "go figure" Fay told herself.  He pushed back the cloud of hair that had fallen over his eyebrows.  White-haired and pink-cheeked, he could be taken for an albino except for the iris-blue eyes.  Soft blue, unlike the hard iron-blue of Cedric Fox's eyes. 
     "Not a word.  Which could mean no change.  Cedric promised to call me." 
     "He usually keep his promises?" 
     She gave a half smile, thinking of the French teacher Chance had seen him with.  Unless they had an open marriage, he was ducking some of those promises.  Though she shouldn't make a mountain out of an arm around a waist.  "They could be related," she said aloud. 
     "What?  Who?" 
     She was always speaking her thoughts aloud—it came from all these hours out of a job and alone with the goats.  She told Willard what Chance had seen at the Alibi, and he laughed.  "Probably a cousin or something," he said.  Willard never thought the worst of anyone. 
     "Could be.  My imagination, you know.  Of course he's a lot younger than Marion.  The hormones and all that." 
     "What difference does age make?"  he said.  "Marion's a handsome woman."  Willard was blushing.  Did he have a crush on Marion?  Lots of men did; Fay had seen them at parties and meetings she went to off and on.  She was suddenly annoyed with Willard.  Why was he always hanging around here?  What did he really want?  It wasn't money.  He wouldn't accept a nickel from Fay for all his grounds work. 
     "I have to get dinner," she said, slapping her plastic cup down on the dirt floor.  The cup tipped and the tea dregs spilled into the dirt.  Willard picked up the cup, he didn't know why she was upset.  His big face pinkened. 
     "Thanks," she said, relenting.  "I don't know what I'd do without you, Will." 
     Now he was blushing down to the silvery-pink roots of his hair.  He was shaking his head, his lips trying to form words.  "I'll clean up here," he finally said.  "You go back and start supper." 
     "If you'll help eat it.  And be sure Beets comes in with you?  He was running your train last I saw." 
     She walked slowly back through the pasture to the house.  Willard's model train was whizzing around the tracks by the flower-cum-veggy garden, where she stooped to pick three ripe tomatoes.  She thought of Cedric, who did all the gardening because Marion didn't have time for it.  A man who gardened couldn't be all bad, could he?  If you could grow plants you could grow a relationship? 
     Of course her own ex had grown fowl on his chicken farm and spewed out eggs and that relationship had soured—well, smelled was the word.  Every day Fay was thankful to be out of it, though her grandson, Ethan, was now living with her, a somewhat stubborn, uncommunicative fellow.  Taciturn Ethan was probably why she'd agreed to take over the foster kids. 
     Win a few, lose a few, she thought, the old cliché.  When people asked how she was doing, she'd say, "Holding.  I'm just, well, holding." 
     But—oh God—Marion had let go, she learned when she entered the kitchen.  Cousin Glenna met her with a glass of scotch in her arthritic hand, her lined face a waterfall.  "Phone call," she said.  "Bad news.  Your puppeteer friend didn't make it.  Died early this afternoon.  I'm sorry, kid.  Awful, awful sorry." 
     The old lady reached out to gather Fay in.  The glass tipped and the scotch trickled down the back of Fay's shirt, like a puddle of sticky tears. 
     And Fay was drowning in it. 

 

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