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Once, and not so long ago...

Once, and not so long ago, there was a graduate student named Jill. She lived in a rented two-bedroom condo with her boyfriend, Ethan. Jill was beautiful, for she had short red hair and bright eyes and she laughed easily and long. Ethan was beautiful, too, for he had long brown hair past his shoulders and a shy smile and he always thought carefully before he spoke. The condo was beautiful, as well, but only because they lived there together.

They had met at a party on a rainy night at the ragged end of winter. Two dozen students crammed in a tiny apartment in Georgetown, their breath fogging the windows and their talk ringing in the air -- so noisy that he almost didn't hear her cheerful laugh or she his thoughtful speech. But they did hear each other, and soon they fell in love. And soon after they found their condo. And now they cooked Thai food together, and rented John Cusack movies for the nostalgia, and sometimes they stayed up all night talking. It all seemed perfect to Jill, save for one thing.

Every Sunday night Ethan would leave her -- for a study group meeting, he said. Who knows why she first began to doubt him? Maybe it was the way his eyes shifted as he left. Maybe it was the wild smell of night air in his hair when he returned. Her suspicions grew until she could stand it no longer.

And so one night she followed him. Through the twilit streets of Arlington, past used car lots and restaurants, she tracked the taillights of his car. At a stoplight, she pulled up right behind him and then slumped in her seat for fear of being recognized. "This is the most thoroughly inept James Bond imitation ever," she complained. It occurred to her suddenly that it might have been much easier simply to talk to Ethan about it. But you should know that Jill had never truly been in love before, and a few mistakes are always to be expected at the start.

For a moment Jill did think of turning around. But the light changed, Ethan's car surged forward, and Jill's followed after.

Over ramps and under bridges they went, to the Parkway heading north. Jill grew more confused with every turn. Then at last Ethan left the road, too quick for her to follow. He turned into the parking lot of Roosevelt Island. A park ranger raised a chain across the driveway behind him. Jill sped past, cursing at the horns honking behind her. The Parkway was a gray concrete chute wedged between the office towers and the river; she could find no exit, nor any place to turn around. She parked on the shoulder and headed back on foot. "Study group, my ass," she muttered.

In the parking lot were twelve cars and the ranger's truck. Jill crossed the long wooden bridge to the island, and you can be sure she felt quite uneasy. The island was a dark mass floating on the glittering water. The grumbling traffic behind her masked any sounds from the brushy shore.

No one awaited her at the bridge's end. She followed the wide dusty path to the island's heart. She heard voices.

Stopping just before the clearing, she peeked around the trees. If you visit the island, you will see some of what Jill saw: the great stone panels and curved reflecting pools of the Roosevelt Memorial framing a paved plaza and a fountain. But on that night, someone had built a fire beside the fountain, and dark forms clustered around it. She could see that one of them was Ethan.

Jill crept closer, crossing between the pools to hide behind a panel. A woman clicked off her cell phone. "Steve's not going to make it after all," she said, "so we might as well get started." The assembled people murmured in agreement, and began to take off all their clothes.

Watches, and rings, and eyeglasses -- they took everything off. Surely you can imagine Jill's astonishment. But after a few moments, she smiled in relief. "Of course!" she thought. "Ethan must be a Pagan or a Wiccan or something and he's embarrassed to admit it to me! That would be so like him."

Now, I can tell you that the closest her guess came to the true explanation was "or something," but indeed Ethan was there for no evil purpose, and if only he had confided in Jill weeks before, much heartache and adventure would have been avoided. But he had never truly been in love before, either, so we will forgive him his mistakes as well.

Jill was a well-mannered young woman, and felt bad about spying on strange naked people during a religious ceremony. She began to sneak away . . . but then she heard hoofbeats on the stone paving.

She turned and looked. A horse trotted in front of the fire. Then the naked man next to the fire yawned, and his jaw did something that jaws do not do. When dark fur began to ripple across his distorted face in a sprouting wave, Jill knew it was no trick of the firelight. He roared and the sound came from everywhere. The horse trotted toward her, the fire blazed up, and Jill fainted.

Cold water engulfed her. She flailed and coughed. "Oh my god, are you okay?" a girl asked, as the shape-changers pulled Jill out of the reflecting pool.

"I'm fine," she gasped. "I'm sorry . . . to interrupt . . ." Her foot slipped on the edge and she fell to her knees in the water again, splashing her rescuers. A naked woman with hair like crow feathers sighed in exasperation. Then, over the woman's shoulder, Jill saw Ethan.

She knew it was him, even though his head was crowned with pricked-up ears and a shaggy pelt ran down his neck and shoulders, framing his pale skin.

"Ethan?" she asked.

"Oh, shit," a man beside her swore.

"Jill. . . ." Ethan sounded so sad. He stepped closer to the pool and held out his hand. A sudden wind blew a little swirl of birds around his feet. They rose to his knees and then his hips in a whirlwind gust, a dense flock springing up out of nowhere. More birds appeared on his outstretched hand, and when they flew away, his hand was gone.

"Ethan!" she cried.

His sad eyes met hers for a moment longer, but the wind of birds rose to his chest, and then his shoulders, and wherever the birds were, Ethan wasn't.

And then he was dissolved completely, and the twittering cloud disappeared into the night sky with the sparks of the fire.

Animal noises trumpeted, and the figures around her exploded into motion. The horse galloped across the pavement, heading straight for Jill. She ducked into the pool again in terror as he sailed over it. When she dared to look up again, everyone was gone.

Three sorrowful months passed for Jill.

Three sorrowful months passed for Jill. She never told a soul about what had happened on the island. "He went to a study session, and never came home," was all she would say. For who could believe the truth?

One night Jill went to the opera, just to please her friends, who worried about her. It was a production of The Magic Flute and it made Jill cry. (Truth be told, she would have cried even if she had sat home alone that night, so perhaps her friends knew what they were doing after all.) When the opera ended, Jill pushed her way through the elegant crowds in the Kennedy Center foyer. The tears in her eyes turned the cascading chandeliers into streaks of light. She said good night to her friends and escaped to the terrace, wide and mostly empty in the December chill.

She could see the dark outline of the island now from where she stood. By night or by day, the island told her nothing about what had happened there.

"It's a fine view, isn't it?" said a voice beside her. Standing right at her elbow was the singer who had played Papageno in the opera, still in costume and garish makeup.

"I guess so. And you gave a wonderful performance, Mr. . . . Putnis." Jill had to fumble with her program to find his name.

He waved away the compliment. "I like islands. So mysterious. And so many people drive past that one every day without ever thinking about it." He was a tall, strong, sandy-haired man with a European accent that Jill could not place. "Have you ever been to the island?"

"N-no," she said.

"Never?" He looked down at her with his arms folded. His silly feathered breeches and suspenders did not detract one bit from his stern expression, and Jill felt that she could not lie to him.

"A few times," she admitted.

"Do you want him back?"

Jill took a step back from him, sure that he could not possibly mean what it sounded like he meant.

"I am the Birdcatcher, as you see," he said with a courtly bow. "And I can bring him back. Watch." He began a thin piping on his panpipes, his gestures theatrically grand. Other operagoers at the far end of the terrace began to take notice and whisper. Jill tried to smile for their benefit.

Soon she heard the rustle of wings and a small brown bird emerged from the night and alit on the railing. It was just a sparrow, the kind you see on the street every day.

"Only four hundred more, and we shall have him." He knelt gracefully to inspect the bird.

"You're lying," she whispered. "Someone put you up to this. You're one of those people. From the island."

"I'm not one of 'those people,' and I'm not a liar. Look." The bird jumped to his hand and he held it up to her. "I sent him to sing three mornings at your window, to coax you to the opera." The little bird cocked its head and looked into Jill's eyes. Its own bright black eyes held nothing human, and not a feather of it looked magical. But Jill was not so sure about the strange man who had called it.

And in the end, how could it hurt her any worse to try?

"Why would you do this for me?" she asked.

"Aren't you the woman who was meant to have him? If you do something for me, I'll bring him back for you."

"What do I have to do?"

"I want to dance with the President's daughter."

"Emma Washburn?" Jill spluttered. "But . . . why?" Jill was not unfamiliar with fairy tales, and she had begun to imagine many different prices, but her matchmaking services were not among them.

"Because she's so beautiful," the strange man said. "And so modest, even though she's so bright and talented."

In that time and place, not many people considered Emma Washburn beautiful. But the Birdcatcher smiled and danced across the parti-colored terrace, holding an imaginary partner in his arms, and his every look and motion were so tender that Jill believed he was not joking. He danced with such strange grace that everyone stopped to watch him. He sketched a little bow to the other onlookers before coming back to Jill.

"Um, you realize, don't you, that I'm not anyone important? I'm just a student -- I intern at the Defense Research Institute. I analyze data from leadership questionnaires. I don't know anyone at the White House," Jill said.

"Oh, I'm sure you'll manage. When you've made your arrangements, come to the island and call for me." He bowed once more, gave her a radiant smile, and took his leave.

Jill had a difficult task before her...

Jill had a difficult task before her, for the President's daughter might as well have been a princess locked in a tower. But Jill lived in a city where connections were worth more than gold, where the people collected business cards and phone numbers like talismans. She was sure that if she asked enough people, she could find someone who could lead her to Emma. For weeks she tried. She asked her professors; she asked her friends; she asked the young men who sometimes talked to her on the Metro. "Do you know anyone who works at the White House?" she asked them, and "Have you ever met Emma Washburn?" But the closest she could come was an office-mate whose cousin's fiancee's sister had gone to Sidwell Friends with Emma, and he gently refused to make Jill an introduction. For she could tell no one why she asked these questions, and her friends began to think it was a dangerous obsession born of grief.

In despair, Jill chose another plan. She would move to Boston, where Emma went to college, and she would wander the streets until she found her. Then she would follow Emma to a bookstore or perhaps a record store, and when Emma stood before the shelves in indecision, Jill would steal to her side and offer her the perfect book or the perfect CD, as if offering her a rose. Then naturally they would strike up a conversation, and then a friendship, and then Jill would plead her case. For she never intended to hand the First Daughter over unknowing to the strange opera singer. She would explain everything to Emma first, and make her see.

So Jill wrote the letters to withdraw from her classes and resign from her job. She printed them out, and folded them, and sealed them in envelopes. Then she went out to dinner. There, over a plate of chana dal, her faith was rewarded.

The chimes on the door of the Delhi Cafeteria jingled as another group came in -- laughing, chatting young professionals with soft wool suits and perfect hair. They were halfway to the counter before Jill recognized the crow-haired woman (it was the clothes that confused her, you see).

Jill leapt to her feet and grabbed the woman's arm.

"Ow!" The woman spun around.

"Hey, maybe you could let go of her arm and we can all have a seat," said one man in the false but hearty voice that people use for humoring lunatics.

"We need to talk about Roosevelt," Jill said.

Now the crow-haired woman recognized Jill, too. "It's okay. She and I used to work together," she said. Her tone made it sound very much like "She killed and ate my dog." She moved to the door and Jill followed her outside.

The woman leaned against the window of the import store next door, framed by scarlet saris and gleaming metal dishes. She stared at Jill and said nothing.

"What happened on the island?" Jill began.

"You didn't trust your boyfriend, is what happened."

And that was all she would say, until Jill burst out with, "Look, I didn't tell the police anything about your -- your party. If I had, they would have thought I was a freak, but they at least would have checked out the park ranger. I bet he could have been traced."

The woman pursed her lips and considered. "Well, you figured out the shape-changer part, right? If one of us is stupid enough to fall in love with one of you, he can't be seen by his beloved while in animal form, not even the very edge of animal form, or poof! He's birds. He's not dead, but he might as well be; the birds have no clue they were ever anything else."

Jill's heart sank, for the woman's voice was bleak. Could the Birdcatcher have been lying? And so she asked the woman, "But what about the Birdcatcher?"

"You are so not funny," the woman spat, and then turned to re-enter the restaurant.

Jill saw her last hope disappearing. "Wait! Wait! Please, what did I say?"

The woman paused. "I'm sorry I was short with you," she said quietly. "I know you must be grieving, too. But I don't think that mocking our beliefs is the right tactic for you to take here. Why did Ethan tell you about the Birdcatcher anyway?"

"Ethan didn't tell me anything. I met the Birdcatcher at Kennedy Center. He's an opera singer. He played his pipes and a sparrow flew over from the island, and he says he can bring Ethan back. He wants to dance with Emma Washburn."

The woman seemed so mystified that Jill recounted it all just as it had happened. ". . . and then he was dancing. And nobody laughed. Somehow it wasn't funny at all, it was heartbreaking. He made me believe him. He made me believe everything he said." By the last sentence her voice was choked with staved-off tears. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Jill was weary of crying, and to weep before this arrogant woman would be worst of all.

"That would have to be the stupidest lie I ever heard. So maybe it's true."

Surprised, Jill opened her eyes. The other woman was brushing away a telltale streak of mascara, too, for she had been touched more deeply than Jill could yet understand. "We talk about the Birdcatcher all the time, but he's just a story we tell to kids," the woman continued. "No one I've heard of has ever seen him. So help me, if you're making this up--"

"I'm not!" Jill insisted.

Now, Meredith -- for that was the crow-haired woman's name -- was troubled at Jill's news. She had put aside her belief in the Birdcatcher back when she put aside her dolls and her plastic horses; she was as rational and modern as any shape-changing crow-woman could be. The sudden hope she felt now was both wonderful and bitter. If she was small enough to wish that the gift Jill had been given had come to her instead, she was also big enough to admit that it was a gift she had never once thought to ask for. Finally, she could do nothing else but agree to help Jill.

"I don't know how to reach Emma myself," Meredith told her, "but I know someone who might be able to help you. Once I met a guy whose cousin worked at the White House. His name was Andre. Or maybe Andreas. Brown. Andre Brown. Here, I'll give you my card. If you find him, tell him you talked to me. And just in case he needs more proof--" She ran her fingers through her gleaming black hair and came out with a crow's feather. "Any one of us will recognize that."

"Don't you have his number or anything? If he's one of you?" Jill asked.

"No, I only met him that one time at the mixer."

Now Jill was astonished, for she had thought that the thirteen people on the island were all the shape-changers in the city, maybe all the shape-changers in the world. How many of the people around her were not what they seemed? "And your friends?" Jill nodded toward the restaurant.

"Oh, them? No, no way," Meredith laughed. "They're just lawyers."

Jill tore up her letters...

Jill tore up her letters of resignation and pursued her new lead with zeal. But two weeks passed and her hopes began to flag once more. She called every "Andre Brown" or "A. Brown" listed in every metro and suburban phone book, even for towns as far out as Reston. She called each one over and over until she spoke to an actual person, and she had many strange and embarrassing conversations.

Finally, Jill had to leave the city for a weekend conference. When she returned, she and her friends shared a taxi back from the airport. Jill's friends gossiped about famous researchers, but Jill only stared out the window and ran the crow feather over, around, and between her fingers. She noticed that the driver smiled at her whenever she looked at him.

One by one her friends were dropped off, and when Jill was alone, the driver said, "Is there anything I can help you with? I saw the feather. I'm Andre Brown." He smiled and offered his hand over the back of the seat.

"Holy cow!" Jill said. She grabbed his hand and shook it for all she was worth. "How did you find me? I've been calling everywhere!"

"I didn't find you, exactly. It was just chance. But I hear that woman Meredith's been telling everyone about you, so when I saw the feather, I figured it had to be you. Damn! The Birdcatcher!" Andre said. "What does the guy look like?"

"He's tall and buff, but he's starting to spread out a little," Jill said. "He looks like he's in his thirties. He's blond. Great singer. Sounds like he's from Europe somewhere. And he seemed really, I don't know, nice."

Andre was beaming. "Well, shit. The Birdcatcher. And Emma Washburn." You may notice that Andre did not argue with Jill at all. He had been walking on clouds ever since he heard about her story, for he had believed in the Birdcatcher all his life, and was trying hard not to say "I told you so" to his younger brothers every five minutes. "I don't know how to reach Emma myself," he said to Jill, "but you need to talk to my cousin Malcolm. Let me give you my card and I'll write his number on it. He's one of the limo drivers for the Washburns. He's got seniority; he can get any assignment he wants. He'll get you in touch with Emma, I'll make sure of it."

"Thank you, Andre. Thank you so much." Then they arrived at Jill's place and together they got her suitcase out from the trunk. Jill shouldered her bag.

"Hey, aren't you going to ask me?" Andre leaned in and pretended to whisper. "You know -- what kind of animal I turn into?"

"Oh! I didn't know if that was polite," Jill said.

"A stoat," he confided.


"A stoat. You know, an ermine. A weasel-type thing. I know, I know, you look at me and you probably think I must turn into something very cool, like a lion or a hyena. Don't I wish. Thanks to some lame-ass English ancestor, I'm a stoat." But he was smiling proudly when he said it.

Malcolm Brown, when Jill finally met him...

Malcolm Brown, when Jill finally met him, was not like the others at all. He was not tart like Meredith, or cheerful like Andre. Malcolm Brown was a man who had long been in pain. Anyone could have guessed it from the wariness in his eyes as he shook hands with Jill, or from the way his heavy shoulders were hunched as if waiting for a blow.

"Ms. Connelly," he said, "please understand that I am not in the habit of disrespecting people I have just met. Therefore I will not use the words 'gullible,' 'naive,' or 'selfish' in this conversation. I will cut you some slack and assume that you've been blinded by grief. But what possessed you to believe a word this man said to you? What makes you think you have the right to endanger Ms. Washburn's life? If the Birdcatcher's intentions are good, then why hasn't he brought Ethan back already? Ask yourself that."

Poor Jill! She huddled back in her plastic chair, there in the center of the mall food court, and it was only pride that kept her from burying her face in her hands. She had thought her task was as good as done, but she saw the real challenge now. She must change Malcolm's mind -- or let him change hers. For she had to admit there was something to what he said.

"I can bring you to where he said to meet him," she said. "You can ask him yourself. Please . . ."

And so they went to the island. They arrived at dusk. A great winter flock of starlings roosted in the trees around the clearing. They filled the air with creaks, whistles, rattles, and screeches. Jill went to the center, where the fire had been. "Birdcatcher!" she yelled. The birds leapt up, their clatter cut off in an instant. The flock wheeled in the blue-green sky and disappeared to the east.

He appeared between two trees, as if he'd just ducked out from under a passing shadow. His costume was gone; he wore jeans and a fisherman's sweater. He stepped out into the plaza.

The two men approached each other like two stars drawn by each other's gravity. They circled each other, Malcolm's face tense and the Birdcatcher's keen and curious. Then they spoke, and the conversation went like this:

"So who are you?"

"I am the Birdcatcher."

"What is the Birdcatcher, and what has he ever done for us?"

"I am a man. An old and lonely man, to be sure, but at heart a man like yourself. I find lost birds and I heal people."

"Oh, do you. Do you heal them all, or only the ones who can pay you something? Do you pick and choose? Are some more worth your time than others?"

"Have you-- Tell me, have you lost someone?"

Malcolm broke away and would not speak. Jill, who was very kindhearted, forgave him for having obliquely called her gullible, naive, and selfish, and she forgot for a moment her fears for Ethan as she thought of who Malcolm might have lost.

The Birdcatcher pressed on. "Tell me who it is! Let us go to where it happened -- maybe there is still time!"

"It was years ago. The birds are long dead. Where were you then?"

"I am only a man. I walk from place to place, or I fly, or sometimes I take a train. I sing for my supper, and then when the singing is done I go listen to the birds. When I find lost ones, I gather them up and heal them. But the world is wide, and I am only one man. I move always from town to town, searching, but sometimes I can't find them all. I am sorry."

Slowly Malcolm's shoulders slumped. His head hung low, and he was still. Maybe he was too quick to forgive the Birdcatcher, but unless you too have been angry for years at a time, you cannot know how tiring it is -- how much a relief it can be to have an excuse to forgive. But he did not forget everything that he had said to Jill. "Bring Ethan back now. Prove it to us," he told the Birdcatcher.

"I know it is hard to trust me," the Birdcatcher said. "But it is hard for me to trust you, too. How can I know you will help me find Emma if I bring him back now? I gathered all the birds I could find as soon as I got here -- they've been under my protection all these weeks. I promise no harm will come to him. Please, please help me."

Now Jill asked her question again, thinking she might get a different answer this time. "Why do you want to dance with Emma Washburn?"

"Because she is trapped under an enchantment," the Birdcatcher said.

And in the end, how could any of them argue with that? The princess is always enchanted. It's the way the story goes.

"Here's my card," Malcolm said. "We've got a date to plan."

Emma Washburn came home for spring break. It was her senior year; she could have gone to Rome, or Rio, or an island in the sun, but as fate would have it, she came home.

It was Malcolm who told Emma about Big Band Night at the Spanish Ballroom in the old Glen Echo amusement park. And three days later, there they all were: Emma and her friends on the dance floor, mingling with the crowd, learning the Lindy; the Birdcatcher at the other end of the room, not daring to talk to Emma yet; Secret Service agents sprinkled along the sidelines, not even trying to blend in; and, hidden in an alcove, there was Jill.

In the ballroom the golden lights shimmered and the crowd noises rose and fell. Perhaps the people who had come to dance were merely excited by the celebrity in their midst, or perhaps enchantment had settled over them as well. Laughter brighter and louder than usual echoed off the faded splendor of the walls. Men and women danced with flair and energy; their feet seemed barely to touch the scuffed wooden floor.

Now the band began a slow song. Emma and a girlfriend pretended to tango, striding across the floor, tossing their long hair over their shoulders as they turned, then nearly falling over with laughter.

At last the Birdcatcher sought her out. He shouldered through the crowd and presented himself to Emma with a bow of the sort that everyone else had abandoned eighty years ago.

Emma was delighted. A warm smile graced her plain face. She took the Birdcatcher's arm and they began a turn around the floor. It wasn't only the Secret Service agents who turned to stare. Emma and the Birdcatcher glided and spun, and sometimes they stumbled or got tangled in a pretzel of arms. But awkward or not, they were beautiful and brilliantly alive.

And Jill, watching from her nook of wooden chairs and coats piled high, dreamed that she might feel that way soon, too.

The Birdcatcher danced three dances with the President's daughter. On the third, he and she whispered in each other's ears the whole while. Then he bowed to her again and left. Jill followed him out of the building, out to where old carousels slumbered between pools of lamplight.

The Birdcatcher took a tin whistle out of his pocket and began to play. Shapes melted out of the darkness as if called -- it was not the birds yet, but the shape-changers. Meredith was there, and the Brown cousins, and many more besides. Soon the birds themselves arrived. Sparrows landed in the lamp-lit circle, scratching at the dead leaves that skittered over the ground.

More birds came. They jostled for space. They popped up with little flutters when they were shoved out of the way. Some latecomers never landed; they flew around and around, forming a feathery column in the air.

The Birdcatcher stamped his feet and piped harder. His face turned red. The column began to take a shape. Then he played one high note, again and again, faster and faster. The birds sang the same note. For a long moment, the column hung in the air, a man-shaped flock of birds peeping and rustling.

Then the Birdcatcher clapped his hands. The birds winked out and were replaced by a naked man. It was Ethan.

"Welcome back!" the Birdcatcher said.

Ethan turned and looked around in amazement. Then he looked at himself, and gasped. He held up his left hand; two fingers were missing.

"I'm sorry about that," the Birdcatcher said. "It was a cold December. Lucky it wasn't your liver that flew south, eh?"

Then at last, Ethan laid eyes on Jill. Hesitantly, she held out her hand to him. He took her hand and then pulled her into a tight embrace. As the two of them murmured heartfelt apologies and promises of love, all under the starry night sky, they believed this story to be at an end. And all the shape-changers who ran and flew and slithered through the park all the night long in raucous celebration believed the story to be at an end as well.

But there is a little bit more to tell: that night, Emma Washburn went to her parents and asked them to let her spend the next three days of her holiday alone. Emma had always been such a sober and trustworthy young woman, and she pleaded with such feeling, that reluctantly her parents agreed. The next morning at dawn, Emma went to Roosevelt Island. She ran to the clearing where the Birdcatcher waited. They clasped hands and ran together, then leapt into the air and disappeared. Two hawks were in their places, two hawks who circled the clearing thrice and then flew off to the west.

And even that is not really an end at all, but a beginning.

illustration © 2003 Maral Agnerian
Illustration © 2003 Maral Agnerian

Erika Peterson lives in small-town southern Illinois. She has a zoologist husband, an infant daughter named Cordelia, and far too many pets. She also has a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Washington and taught psychology at George Washington University for several years.
Maral Agnerian is a freelance illustrator and amateur costumer living in Toronto, Canada. She graduated from the Illustration program at the Ontario College of Art and Design and now spends her time painting, sewing, beading, and various other creative pursuits.
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17 Jan 2022

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