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Musici by Derek Zumsteg

The last note of Enri’s exit aria resounded in the hall, the heavy air humming and electric, as the company’s performers smiled in the lamplight and accepted scattered applause. The audience, roused from gawking up at the important people in the boxes along each side wall, began to push for the aisles. One listener sat not moving in his seat in the center of the main floor, He kept his eyes closed and smiled with a warm contentment. His black hair greyed across the temples and speckled his beard, almost concealing remarkably young features and an unpocked-face. He wore modest, plain, clean clothes, unremarkable except for two well-polished gold ear cuffs, clipped high on each side, brightly out of fashion.

Enri, who had sung the still-audible final moment of Hera, watched him.  Stripped of his stage costume, Enri looked like a mantis, or a flamingo, or a hairless, slight chimpanzee, his long arms almost to his knees, his stick-like legs running seemingly to his head.  The passing heads of company members breaking down the production didn’t even reach his shoulders. Still the note remained.

“Bartolo,” Enri whispered to stage left, “bring two men with large staffs.”

Bartolo, struggling to get a belt around his massive waist, paused to look at Enri. He huffed with contempt and returned to his battle.

Enri stamped his foot. “Bartolo!”

“What?” Bartolo said, and the bass-baritone strode out holding his pants up with both hands. Having poured perfume over his layer of performance sweat, his odor trailed him as he passed to center stage, a mix of flower, fruit, stale sweat, and ass. His hair hung like heavy yarn, tangled from being under his wig. Bartolo stopped at his mark, brought both feet together, and faced the hall. He looked at the man, snorted in derision, looked at Enri, and then back at the man.

“You, good sir!” Bartolo didn’t give his performance C, but he was on stage with an audience, and his voice enveloped the hall like a heavy blanket, smothering Enri’s high A.

“Giovanni Sellia,” the man said. He wore a plain vest over a loose shirt, neat and clean.

“Sellia,” Bartolo said. “Our modest show has concluded.”

“Has it?” The man stood. “Booooooooooo!” He yelled, smiling and cheeks coloring above the beard. His brown eyes shone. “Boooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

Bartolo started.

“Terrible!” Giovanni said, starting to laugh. “I traveled so far for this? An empty spectacle, infertile and boring! Of course your audience talks throughout – their gossip is far more interesting than this worthless Hera!”

Bartolo gave Enri a significant look.

“Spaniard?” he mouthed.

Enri put his empty hand out, helpless.

“Russian?” Bartolo mouthed.

“I don’t know,” Enri whispered.

The man, now at the aisle, stepped forward, smiling. “They warned me Italian opera was a hollow vessel filled with false emotions. Why did I ignore their wisdom?”

“Enri,” Bartolo said. “The men with staves?”

“And yet you seem to be in fine spirits,” Enri said.

“My angel!” the man cried, arms wide in welcome. “Your voice is a revelation like the moment I embraced our Lord Jesus Christ in my heart, and on my love for Him I have never heard anything so beautiful and graceful! You touched me, sir, truly. After the final aria, I could not move, wanting that last moment to go on.”

“And yet—” Bartolo asked, heavy eyebrows together in confusion.

“In service of such terrible work, oh!”

“How dare you!” Bartolo yelled.

“You are the composer? You are a fine singer,” the man said, quietly, sadly. “But in writing you are like Icarus and fly too high for your wax wings.”

Enri put a hand on Bartolo’s shoulder, quelling a response.

“Such a terrible plot. The librettos are the worst in Italy and possibly Europe. But you were an excellent villain,” Giovanni said. “Your voice is powerful and expressive, and with such subtlety.”

“You flatter me with your outstanding taste for fine opera,” Bartolo said. “I regret speculating you were Spanish.”

“Spanish? For shame. I’ve returned to Calabria after years in Bavaria.”

“Ah. Bavaria,” Bartolo said to Enri.

“Bavaria,” Enri agreed.

“His vowels are like being stabbed in the ear,” Bartolo said, frowning. “May we never travel to Germanic lands.”

“May I treat the company to the traditional after-performance meal?”

“Treat the company!” Enri chirped, and blushed.

“After such a reception?” Bartolo yelled, drawing himself forward onto his toes. “Never!”

“But we are performers,” Enri said. “And can’t turn down a free meal.” He smiled at the man.

Bartolo sank back and seemed to shrink as he relaxed his shoulders. “As you are a recent escapee from the northern tribes, I excuse your rudeness,” Bartolo said. “It is to your credit that you retained any appreciation of the great art while among such barbaric company for so long.” He paused, smiled, shot Enri a half-second of a glare, then smiled again.  “A moment.”

Giovanni nodded and stood as Bartolo hustled backstage.

“Everyone, everyone! Free food!” the unseen Bartolo yelled. “We have acquired a senseless Bavarian patron!”

A chorus of cheers rolled through the curtains. Enri sat to hop down, his huge legs almost covering the gap when dangled tentatively, making the jump trivial. Giovanni approached the stage under an amused gaze.

“You’ve savored the moment?” Enri asked.

“I have always felt that the appropriate reception for a truly great work is not applause or cheering, but a moment of silence.” He offered a hand, and they shook. The man’s grip was rough and warm, Enri’s weak and cold.

“The first clap is almost an insult,” Enri agreed.

“Oh, but the applause,” the man said, and he began to clap. Enri smiled despite himself. “And well deserved.”

Enri bowed a few degrees, bending head.

“To food!” Bartolo called, stomping out with the rest of the players behind. They were a colorful bunch: dirty, many of them only half out of costume, already drinking, all with hopeful eyes for Giovanni. Bartolo had put on layers of layers of black, a stark contrast to the airy new-ivy-colored blouse and pants Enri wore.

Bartolo hopped down to the floor and walked over to clap an arm over the man’s shoulder and raise the other for emphasis. “Meet our generous patron tonight. Sir, I would introduce you to our company but –” he gave a look.

“I’m Giovanni Sellia,” Giovanni said. “Long of Catanzaro, briefly of Milan and Bologna, lately of the Munich Green Opera Company and happy to meet you all. Tonight’s performance was the finest I have ever seen, and it will be my pleasure to host tonight.”

They cheered.

“Liar!” Bartolo bellowed. “We accept! To the street!” Keeping his left arm tightly around Giovanni’s shoulders, he walked side-by-side out the theater and into the street.

“Tell me, if you would, of these Bavarians. What do they do in the evenings? Have they discovered they can strike rocks together?”

Giovanni laughed. “No, they mount wild bears and duel. The winner is crowned Duke.”

Outside the house in the narrow crooked street, the breeze smelled of black pepper and grilling. Hangers-on watched from further up, shifting nervously on the stones and stealing glances. The deep yellow-red of the sunset fired the tangled clay roofs of the city, and made Giovanni’s ear cuffs glow like bronze. Bartolo frowned and went back in after stragglers.

“Have you missed the food?” Enri asked Giovanni. He hid a yawn behind his drawn hand.

“If I wrote an aria about it,” Giovanni said, “the audience would be so sad and so hungry they would cry uncontrollably and devour their neighbors. Do you know how long I went without polenta?” He shook his head and laughed. “And two years, two years without olive oil.”

Enri made a sour face. “I can’t think of it!”

“It must seem impossible, with so much produced here, even up against that squat monstrosity.” He waved an arm at the flat brutal fortress on the point, masked nearly black against the darkening sky. “There are no traders, no imports?” Enri waved and smiled at a small huddle of admirers. They giggled. Other men glared, straightened.

Giovanni threw his head to the sky. “Moses didn’t wander as far as I did while searching for fresh olives. And when you’re not at risk of losing your appetite, I’ll tell you what I once did for a single bruised tomato.”

Enri gave a little leer with his eyebrow and a crooked smile. “Is it a delicate story?”

“I was not delicate afterwards, no,” Giovanni said, clearing his throat and looking away.

“I should not delay you, then,” Enri said. He looked back to the hall, each direction on the street, at Giovanni, smiled mischievously, cleared his throat, causing the group to turn and look at him expectantly. Enri stamped his foot and huffed. “I grow bored!” he yelled, and started down a gentle downward slope. “Come, come,” he said, waving Giovanni forward.

Enri’s walk was a series of lurches smoothed with practice and his own serious-faced desire to maintain dignity, neither of which could overcome the sheer length of his limbs. Giovanni scurried to keep a step behind.

“Why Bavaria?” Enri asked, turning his head only a little to the side and smiling at a woman in a window as he passed.

“My singing career drew to a dignified end, and they offered a chance to teach at the royal conservatory and compose.”

“Bavaria has a royal conservatory?”

“As it turned out, they did not,” Giovanni said, and Enri glanced back to catch him blushing. “The school was half-built when I arrived, though there were students.”

“How was it?”

“I found teaching tedious, the students stupid and unrefined but eager.”

“What a dangerous combination,” Enri said. “Did you compose, or did they not have ink?”

“Two works of some local note,” Giovanni said, straightening and pulling his shoulders back, “Torture of Orethestues and Vengeance of Eunomia. But I know someone of your talent is endlessly pestered to read compositions. So I won’t mention them again.”

Enri stopped, laughing into one hand, and motioned for Giovanni to come close. Enri smelled faintly of stage makeup and stale sweat, and heavily of flowery perfume.

“Sir,” Enri said softly. “We are in Calabria.” He put a hand on Giovanni’s shoulder. “You, me, and Bartolo may be the three people who can write in our fine city.” He patted Giovanni’s chest twice, smiled, and started again. Giovanni scampered to keep up. The rest of the company, long broken segments, trailed behind them to the last corner and out of sight.

Enri pointed and led them into an extremely narrow passage between a bright yellow-painted stone building and its faded red twin. He kept up his pace while Giovanni turned nearly sideways and shuffled. They emerged onto a well-populated street. Enri crossed and descended carved stone steps. A narrow column of sea stood ahead of them, and the wind carried over their shoulders towards the horizon.

“Ah, here.”

The stairs put them onto a long stretch of worn rocks and sand, and Giovanni stopped to inhale the salt and seaweed. Enri kept on, looking back and waving impatiently with one hand.

Behind one of the three-story buildings facing the ocean Enri strode into an enclosed courtyard, a historical accident of layout that left space for mismatched tables and warped chairs of all sizes.

“I am here!” Enri declared. “The evening may begin!”

He grinned widely to the six people already sitting and the graying, hunched man bringing wine out, and held his arms high for attention. The courtyard fell silent. “I am happy to bring you the great and highly recommended Giovanni Sellia, royal Bavarian composer and conductor, composer of the internationally acclaimed works Torture of Orethestues and Vengeance of Eunomia.” The diners got up to greet Giovanni and politely wonder why he’d come to such a poor region.

“But Calabria is rich in talent!” Giovanni said, looking to Enri, who blushed prettily. They laughed, and with his social tithe paid, Enri took a small table in a darker back corner that might seat two cozily, and the joy and friendliness dropped from his face.

“Why are you here?” Enri asked.

“I hoped I would see Italian opera in its purest form,” Giovanni said. “I complained about the ornament of your Hera, but if I told you of the opulence of opera in Rome, it would sicken you. And people coming up raved about this young musico . . . you.”

Enri sighed. “Yes.”

“It’s well deserved. I’ve never heard anything like it. Your power and range, they’re unlike anything I’ve ever heard.”

Enri bowed a few degrees, bending head.  “You flatter me,” Enri said. “Surely you heard better castrati when you were a working singer yourself.”

Giovanni’s expression of sincere admiration caught. “Perhaps I had forgotten what it was like,” he said. “To see a performance live is not like recalling it, years later. In Munich, almost no one has ever heard a musico perform.”

“Surely not.”

“No one. We have— “ he stopped. “Only reports, women singing in the range, but it’s all farce, mimicry. I heard one man who merely sang falsetto.” Giovanni closed his eyes and sighed, shaking his head, then opening them to look on Enri and smile again. “To be here for the real thing, ah.”

Enri said, and smiled, reaching out to touch Giovanni’s hand, two of Enri’s long, cool, thin fingers resting next to the hard ball of Giovanni’ pisiform.

“And starved for good food you find only the thinnest of soups, served in the most beautiful bowls, and you’re only hungrier after each stop.” Enri patted the back of Giovanni’s hand softly. “Then am I a delicious bit of veal in a thin broth?”

The balls of Giovanni’s cheeks, lit by the lamps in the yard, glowed a hot red, and he swallowed.

“I might be enraged, too, and make an ass of myself,” Enri said. He withdrew his long hand, dragging fingertips to the table and back. “I believe that. A little bit. Wine!” Enri yelled, his voice a knife through all conversations. “You’re lucky,” he said. “This was the best Hera I’ve ever done. I knew it would be when I woke up. Tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll only remember it. And in a few years we’ll both have forgotten it.” Enri looked off at the trickle of friends coming in.

“No,” Giovanni said quietly. His hand lifted from the table, reaching up as his head leaned, and he straightened and stopped. “Tomorrow could be better still.”

“Did his mood turn before he could eat?” Bartolo yelled to the back. “Stuff him quickly!”

Enri sighed. “What if it is?” Enri said, turning to face Giovanni again. His brown eyes were wide, open, questioning. “You’re here only as a veteran of previous campaigns, then? Not a bard but a traveling audience?”

“I want to establish a Bavarian opera company,” Giovanni said. “With you. With you as our centerpiece. “

“A Bavarian . . . Royal Opera Company?” Enri asked. He laughed as he leaned back and took up his wine that had finally arrived. “Of course.” Enri took the carafe of wine, decanted a glass for himself with an expression of absolute, crushing boredom, and drank. He set the glass down and arched his back, stretching and wincing in pain. “Why not a Royal Bavarian Opera Company? Why not.”

“The salary . . . “

Enri laughed, one bark, leaning into it. “Bartolo is moving the company,” Enri said. “How far remains to be seen, yes, his Venice idea is as much ambition as plan. But one step, two steps,” he raised both eyebrows and smiled apologetically “Soon I can buy Bavaria. I thought you might have an interesting proposition. How disappointing.”

Giovanni’s face tightened as he ground his teeth. “You won’t get inland,” Giovanni said. He poured himself wine and shook his head. “Do we have to ask for food, or . . . “

“He knows I’m here,” Enri said. “They’ll bring something.”

Giovanni sipped at the wine, frowned. “Do they cask this with the sand, or is it kicked in for each customer?”

“I’m not going to get there?”

“You’re turning down the chance to be special,” Giovanni said. “Unique. In a land of singers with testicles, the gourdless rules. Here, in Italy?” He laughed, three times softly. “I saw two of you discarded in the church choir at Wednesday Mass.”

Bartolo pulled a chair in and bullied forward, shoving Enri back against a wall.

“I am forced to be rude,” Bartolo said. He gave Giovanni a small, embarrassed smile, but his eyes betrayed no emotion at all. “On our walk here, some devil placed an unworthy thought among the lower minded members. They wondered if you intended revenge for your disappointment at the show tonight.” He paused, expecting Giovanni to catch on. “That you might wish to set high expectations for generosity and then leave us angry and impoverished. No?”

“How long must I be insulted for coming from Munich?” Giovanni asked. “I’m growing tired of this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Next time I will pretend to be from Portugal.”

Bartolo’s expression remained absolutely fixed. “Next time,” he said, “we will beat you to death and check your purse afterwards.”

“Ah, you see?” Giovanni asked Enri, eyes lighting up and smiling. “This is the Calabria I remember so fondly.” He clapped Bartolo on the shoulder and chuckled.

“Yes. Your coins, please,” Bartolo asked.

Giovanni produced a small sack from around his neck and set it down on the table. Enri pulled it to him and drew out seven coins, silver, worn, mis-sized, placing each on the table in turn.

“Ah,” Bartolo said, his face relaxing into curiosity. “I will testify to your wealth. Again, I’m sorry.” He stood, straightened his shirt and shoulders, and moved off.

Enri pushed the seven coins into a neat row on the scarred, worn, stained surface of the wood table and moved the candle closer.

“Ah,” Enri said.

“They’re—”

Enri leaned in, so far that he singed one of his stray blonde hairs, wafting a bitter acrid scent. He stacked the coins then turned each one over in his hand, rubbing the faces between thumb and forefinger.

“As a member of a lower profession, I have a certain amount of experience in this,” Enri said.

“They’re all alike,” Giovanni said. “Yes.”

“You came to town.” Enri said softly, stroking the soft down on his cheeks absently, “You need to change your – what’s the Bavarian currency? The fossilized bear turd?”

“For common circulation we use the turnip.”

“More than twins.” Enri held two up, one in each hand, flipped their faces. “Even in the scratches.”

Giovanni bit his lip. “I told them about that. Resolved as ‘won’t fix.’“

“I don’t understand.”

“I suspect my money-changer passed me counterfeits.”

Enri patted himself down and found a coin of his own and turned it over. “If you’re not lying,” Enri said, “you’re very stupid or your counterfeiter is. The weight is perfect. Better.”

Giovanni took the bag and one by one put the coins back under Enri’s fixed stare.

“May I see your ear cuffs?”

“They are forged in place, and can’t come off,” Giovanni said.

“Are you cattle? Where is your brand?”

“At least they let me keep my testicles,” Giovanni said.

Enri’s eyes watered and his face flushed bright red. He threw his glass of wine to the rocks, smashing it, toppled the table, sending the carafe into the air, spilling across the startled players trying to duck away. Enri kicked the table out of his way and stormed from the courtyard.

Giovanni drank from the glass still in his hand.

Bartolo set the table upright.

“Surprisingly late for his first tantrum,” he said. He pulled the chair back up and wedged himself into it. “What started it?”

“Started?”

“Never mind.” Bartolo made a gesture to someone out of Giovanni’s vision with an apologetic face. “There is always something. And now, you see, he must be assuaged.”

“Do I go?”

Bartolo raised both eyebrows at Giovanni. “What a simple and complicated question,” Bartolo said. He caught the eye of the proprietor, smiled, and waved him over to ask after food.

Bartolo and Giovanni sat together and had their dinner, and waited patiently for Enri to make his second entrance. Before they stopped glancing at the narrow passage to the courtyard entirely, he strode in smiling, stopped, bowed, and walked to the center table to take a glass and joke.

Women of different ages, in much different dresses, orbited Enri, sometimes paying no attention, other times joining conversations, occasionally greeting groups seated and eating. They smiled widely to each other and made exaggerated gestures while they talked, never looking at but instead around Enri but closing with each rotation. The men accompanying them stood always a little back, muteness and distance equally clear statements. Enri circulated, wholly social and smiling. As the evening wore on, the women spiraled in, drawn by Enri’s bored face, until they would brush up against him, affect surprised, reach out and put a hand on his long forearm and smile and, in a most circumspect way, offer a proposition and then depart.

“Moths circling a candle,” Giovanni said, quietly.

“Sharks circling a castaway,” Bartolo said.

“Castaways circling a shark,” Giovanni said. He pushed back from his plate and used his knife to pick at his teeth.

“The way to his heart is an interesting and immediate offer. He is like a crow, always distracted, looking for shinier things. No plan a day, a week, a month away finds fulfillment.”

“Especially if it involves travel to an unknown, backwards region,” Giovanni said.

“It’s an interesting analogy,” Bartolo said. “Yes.”

“I always thought I would find the castrati to be sexless, centered on their art.”

Bartolo snorted. “Which art?”

“How have you kept him here, then?” Giovanni said.

“I make it easy for him. And I spend well on costumes,” Bartolo said. “Enri must be well-dressed at all times.” He chewed a bite of lamb, watching Enri greet a couple. “No, he must wear the best.”

“Except when he is adding to his reputation as the finest music tutor available.”

“I suspect he remains somewhat clothed,” Bartolo said. “Though that may depend on discoverability.”

“Is that his excuse? That they must be unclothed for breathing exercises?”

Bartolo shrugged. “I have not been present and am not his watchdog. I do my own, though it is not as lucrative, or frequent, and it’s with a much different cast,” he said, offering a suggestive look and mock toast. “Enri is an irresistible sweet, without consequences. I appeal to women with a taste for bitters. Older, with more sophisticated palettes, or so I tell myself.”

“What happens to you both in a much larger city, with more money, and people?”

“I will buy him a watchdog, for starters,” Bartolo said. He thanked the graying man who set down a baked paella. “Please, enjoy.”

Giovanni looked at the paella with a small smile and wet eyes, smelling the seafood and saffron.

“You remind me a little of myself,” Bartolo said. “Not only in your attempt to profit from Enri.”

“I was a bass baritone, before these great days of Italian opera,” Giovanni said.

“I suspected,” Bartolo said. “You have the gravity and proud bearing of our kind. Why did you give up the stage?”

“My voice, as happens to us all,” Giovanni said.

Bartolo kept a steady regard on Giovanni as he deliberately ate alternate portions of meat and pasta. “You can’t be older than thirty,” he said at last, in a soft voice.

Giovanni nodded. “Say what you will about the wilds of Europe, but the air invigorates, the food is good, and the water is so fresh—”

“Fresh with offal—”

“The finest farmer’s offal, yes,” Giovanni said. “I look better now than when I left the home countries.”

“I find myself skeptical, despite my trusting nature,” Bartolo said. “You couldn’t sing with me for a moment?”

“How many high Cs remain for you?” Giovanni asked. “I wouldn’t ask you to waste one here, before us, rather than on the stage. They are so precious.”

Bartolo remained still, a sad recognition on his soft features.

“You are right,” Bartolo said. “And I know the truth in you.”

He stood and leaning over the table, swept his arms out to grasp the man’s head in both great hands, and kissed his forehead.

When he sat, with the courtyard watching, Bartolo’s grin drew his heavy cheeks up into balls and his eyes danced with the reflected flames of the lamps and candles.

“You won’t sing? Just a line or two.”

Giovanni looked to the table, the replaced carafe, and the rest of the company began to yell to him.

“He is feigning shyness!” Bartolo cried. “We must indulge this spoiled one! What do we want this heralded bass to sing?”

L’Orfeo!”

“I’m a poor Pluto,” Giovanni said.

Giasone!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t—” Giovanni swallowed, cast about for another request, looked imploringly at Bartolo. He looked around and even Enri across the courtyard smiled and clapped, ignoring the annoyed young man next to him. The first impatient jeer came. Giovanni put his hands up.

“Let me do Wotan’s farewell,” Giovanni said. “I will miss notes, I know. Please, don’t compare me to Bartolo in that, he is young and tremendous, and I am old and long from performance.”

“Yes yes yes, flattery and delays,” Bartolo said.

“Sing!” Enri screamed. “Sing, you barbarian!”

“Just a moment.” Giovanni started softly, inaudible beneath the applause for his agreement, quietly running as everyone watched, testing his voice against the small space, turning bright red and shaking as the crowd put their hands down and paid attention. He stopped, sipped at the wine and spit it onto the stones and Enri’s broken glass. “Sorry,” he said.

He sang. Nothing moved. No one applauded or spoke, no one turned back to their wine or food or friends, or coughed, or even seemed to breathe until Giovanni stopped after two minutes to see people from the street and the adjoining buildings pushing forward into the crowd, curious. They all stared, everyone in the company mouths open a little, delighted and stunned.

“Oh,” Giovanni said, closing his eyes and swallowing. “Oh. No. I shouldn’t have.”

He looked back at Bartolo, and saw the big man’s tears drop into his beard, running around his smile. “Cheer you bastards!” he sobbed. “Or I’ll strangle you one by one!”

Enri started, and they all joined in ragged, enthusiastic chorus. Bartolo hugged Giovanni tightly, squeezing the breath out, and released him to take his applause.

“Ah, here I am more familiar in performance,” Giovanni said. He beamed, blushed still brighter, smiled a little. “Your applause warms my heart,” he said, clapping his right hand to left breast. “I bow to you.” He bowed deeply, and the crowded courtyard clapped and laughed. He straightened, dropping the hand, hands out, confused.

“You applaud for me? I am entirely surprised! Stop, stop, please, and allow me to applaud you for being such a good audience. I am unworthy for such excellent listeners.” They laughed harder, and Giovanni bowed again, still deeper, and rose. “And you—” He made to step to his left smartly but caught his ankle on the chair leg and went down, chair in the air, arms windmilling, and everyone rose, laughing, still clapping, smiling, and cheering. Bartolo reached down to pull him up and helped him to his seat. The new arrivals looked from Bartolo to Giovanni to the other singers, eyes wide, expectantly.

“A preview!” Bartolo said. “Come tomorrow for more!”

Giovanni smiled and sat. Bartolo sat, filled both their glasses, wiped a tear from an eye with the back of his hand.

“And in German! Impossible! Was that your composition?”

The color ran from Giovanni’s face. “No,” he said.

“If it was yours and horrible, I understand shame. Or if it was performed terribly. But neither is the case.”

“It is stolen,” Giovanni said, words running together, colliding in breathless haste. “I shouldn’t have, but I always did well with Wagner, and I panicked. This is terrible.”

“You should have claimed it,” Bartolo said. “You’re ashamed at our ignorance? Better to hear it from you!” He laughed. “Cheer up. Are your own compositions so good?”

“Yes,” Giovanni said. “No. They benefit from knowing that one, though, if you see.”

“Stay,” Bartolo said. “I’ll hire you, we’ll compose new works while we prepare, and then you’ll move north with us. Share in our fortunes.”

“I have to return.”

“What if you don’t?” Bartolo asked, with a roll of his heavy shoulders. “What happens? They send a pack of hunting boar on your trail?”

“No,” Giovanni said. “There would be . . . “ Giovanni dumped the remaining wine onto the stones. Bartolo filled the glass. Giovanni rolled his jaw and ran through facial stretches. “I don’t know how best to explain.”

“I am in no hurry.”

“The Bavarian dukes stop the civil wars and conquests that make it a squalid, awful place. They pool their monies.”

“Hah!”

Giovanni shook his head quickly. “Listen, please. Listen. They fund ambassadors, each mission’s finance nearly bankrupting them, most missions failing, the ambassadors lost, but the successes advance the country. Despite the cost and failures they fund each next one as soon as possible.”

“I apologize. To be threatened is a small thing to such obligation.”

Giovanni nodded and drank.

“You have an opportunity to take Enri and better a nation. We might make Venice or Rome better, but they are already quite nice.” Bartolo smiled a little, held his glass up and turned it in his hand, looking at the reflected lamps of the courtyard. “I’ve heard.” He drank. “Ah, look,” with a gesture towards Enri with the glass. “Someone has made him a winning offer.” Bartolo threw a bone to the ground, and a dog ran over immediately to carry it off.

“Is Enri paid for his attentions?”

“Paid? He is not a whore,” Bartolo said, twisting his face into a sour, angry expression. He waited, holding it.

“I’m sor—”

“Whores are honest,” Bartolo finished with a wide laugh, releasing his face. “He receives gifts, of clothes and jewelery. Money is lent. Does Enri make the association? I wonder.”

“It must all seem a blur to him,” Giovanni said. Enri and the woman by his side stepped to them.

“Bartolo, Giovanni, Joan.” The woman smiled and touched Enri’s forearm quickly. Giovanni rose to greet her, found himself trapped between the table, the wall, and Bartolo, who had not risen. He bowed.

“Giovanni,” Enri continued, “arrived this week from Bavaria, and is here as an ambassador.”

“Bavaria has ambassadors?” Joan asked. Giovanni ground his teeth and forced a polite smile. “That was a beautiful piece you sang. I’ve never heard its like.”

The color ran from Giovanni’s face again. “A fragment,” he said. “A lesser work.”

“You look wan,” Enri said. “I hope you feel better. I would stay, but we must go,” Enri said. “I have evening lessons and can’t disappoint.”

Joan giggled.

“I’m pleased to have met you, Joan.” Giovanni said.

“Thank you for singing,” she insisted, and pulled Enri away.

“Youth,” Bartolo said. “So many eager attendants.” He sighed enormously. “Please, don’t ask about my wife.”

“What about—”

“No!” Bartolo paused. “After more wine, perhaps. Are you married?”

“I . . . no. I settled into bachelorhood without realizing it, and soon will be a distinguished gentleman.”

“Ah,” Bartolo said. “I’m confused about which one of should pity the other.”

“Both, in our ways,” Giovanni said.

Enri finished making excuses around the courtyard and left. Bartolo and Giovanni finished their plates and joined the company in the better-lit center to swap performance horrors, director-bankrupting strategies, and to toast each other.

#

After midnight with the group breaking up, Giovanni walked from the warm, lit plaza onto the road, wincing as the heavy, cold night air slapped his warm features. He drew his coat in and picked his way to the thin grassy median past the beach’s tide line, where he found a spot mostly out of the wind and watched moonlit waves wash up. He breathed deeply and easily, exhaling along with the low hiss of the receding waves over worn rocks, growing entirely still, deep in thought.

The moon declined to touch the horizon, reflecting in a long white-yellow river so bright it seemed walkable, and Enri came stumbling by, bleeding from one eye, laughing, and tripped on Giovanni’s feet. His whole misproportioned frame turned, he saw Giovanni, his eyes widening and smiling mouth opening to greet Giovanni as he toppled face first into the sand.

Giovanni got to his knees and turned Enri onto his back. Fresh blood specked the fine detailing of Enri’s clothes, darkened sand outlining the cuts across his head. Giovanni ripped the shirt open and then the pants, scanning for gut wounds. “Are you hurt? Where?”

Enri laughed. “What a night,” he said. “Fucking, fleeing, fighting, and now being ravaged by a Bavarian on my own beach.”

Giovanni strapped the pants back up. “You’re not badly hurt. What is going on?”

“There are four or five men,” Enri said. He flopped one arm over his head. “This big.”

“How large is their anger?” Giovanni reached to his side and for a smoothly curved foot-long pistol, varnished hardwood, ivory, and silver ghostly in the flat gray moonlight.

“Are you a cavalry officer?”

“All of us in the court,” Giovanni said, absently. He opened a hatch at the bottom of the handle and slid a small long black box into it. It ended with a soft, firm clack, and Giovanni pulled the whole top of the gun back and let it reset. “I hardly know what to do with this thing.”

“Oh, if they find us like this,” Enri said, laughed, coughed, tried to spit more sand out. “I need to gargle soon.”

Giovanni risked a look over the grass, scanning the beach in the direction Enri had come, left to right, right to left, intently.  Giovanni fixed on one person and then let his gaze drift until he’s spotted three large forms, spread out.

“I thought you were exaggerating,” Giovanni said. “Did you climb Olympus to find these three?”

“No.”

Giovanni closed his eyes and shook his head three times quickly. “Fuck. I’m a professor, not fuck fuck fuck.” He crouched back down. “Can you run? My room is only a little ways—”

“My leg,” Enri said. “My knee, my ankle.”

Giovanni kept low as he thought and listened, breathing softly.

“I’ll go limp off then,” Enri said. “For your amusement.”

“Enri, how common are pistols? Will they know to run?” Giovanni asked.

“What a stupid question. Look at me, I’m hurt,” Enri said.

Giovanni took a deep breath and knelt, left hand around the right holding the gun out, level down the beach. “Enri,” he whispered, not looking down. “Don’t move, don’t say anything.”

Giovanni moved his aim down and to the left and fired once, a crack and a spout of sand, the sound of the shot echoed off the stone building fronts to be lost in the surf. The three heads ahead of him swiveled, forms hunching down, and Giovanni stepped forward with his right foot, planting, left knee down, and fired again, waiting for them to spot the plume and stepping forward with the echo. Dogs woke to bark through the city, late to the first shot. The men broke on the third, arms churning. Giovanni waited for a ten count, dogs and the city stirring in his right ear and the enveloping calm of breaking waves to his left, then stood and walked back to Enri. Enri held both hands to his chest, rolling a little on his shoulder blades, laughing and coughing.

“Oh look at the duelist,” Enri said, and winced. “Put that away, you’ll get us all in trouble.” He giggled. “What is that infernal thing?” Enri asked.

“It’s a hammerless pistol. Made for the court by a man in Prague.”

“Was this gun maker paid in identical silver coins?” Enri said.

Giovanni kept his gaze down the beach. “You’re going to be lucky I don’t put a shot in you.”

“I regret nothing,” Enri said, closing his eyes and moaning.

“Come on, up, up,” Giovanni said, hoisting Enri up. One-legged, he hung off Giovanni awkwardly, arm over shoulder, Giovanni’s free arm across the shoulder and under the armpit. Enri smelled of sex, his flowery perfume and another, still sweeter one, and terrified, skunked sweat.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“How drunk are you?”

“Not more than usual. People toast me, it would be rude—”

“Be quiet just for a moment.”

Giovanni carried Enri to the door of the inn, where he braced Enri against the wall with a shoulder so that he could return the gun to its holster, and straighten his clothes. Giovanni wiped some of the blood off Enri’s face with a sleeve and then roused the keeper to let them in and help carry Enri up the stairs.

The man who took the other arm had no reaction on seeing Enri appear in the darkness beaten and bleeding, half-undressed, and set him down in Giovanni’s bed without comment and left, closing the door behind him.

Giovanni removed his coat and heavy vest and laid them across the small table. Without the vest, the cloth straps that kept the gun tight along Giovanni’s left side looked like bindings.

“How are you?” Giovanni asked.

“I’m hurt and annoyed,” Enri said. “How dare they!”

“Yes yes,” Giovanni found a cloth sack in one of his trucks and unrolled it on the floor. Like his elaborate leather holster, it was black, perfectly stitched, with regular-sized pockets. “Where are you hurt?”

“My face, from them, my chest, from them, my knee from you, you idiot.” He managed a sour look.

Giovanni helped take off Enri’s layered top, and then his pants.

Enri naked looked not alien but sad. On the cramped bed, he was both the cleanest and most white object glowing in the moonlight pouring through the open window. Folded, his long limbs seemed less conspicuous, but his pale, hairless chest, blotched with bruises and welts already raised, glistened with sweat gathered along his visible ribs. Jagged tears of stretch marks striped almost the entire length of his legs and arms, and once seen, Giovanni could pick them out among the rings on Enri’s fingers, too.

“First, first . . . “ Giovanni paused. “Fists, or sticks, or?”

“Fists and sticks,” Enri said, wincing. “And, and, and.”

“Lay still,” Giovanni said. “Tell me when this hurts.” He began to prod down the ribcage, and Enri bit down on his squeal as his eyes watered on three and five on the right.

“Singing is going to hurt for a while,” Micheal said. “They’re cracked.”

“Singing always hurts,” Enri said. “This is terrible.”

Giovanni took the wet cloth. “I’m going to clean your cuts,” he said. He doused a white cloth in a clear fluid. “This will burn. It will burn a lot. But it will keep you from scarring.”

“My face will be fine? Oh thank God.”

Giovanni wiped dried blood and sand away from the cuts on Enri’s forehead and scalp. He took a thick blue cloth out, drove it against the table edge to double it over with a snap, and then wrapped it around Enri’s knee with the now-bloody rag. “This will keep the swelling down.”

Enri whimpered softly.

Giovanni surveyed his work, eyes skipping over Enri’s hairless groin.

“No, look,” Enri said, lazily.

Giovanni looked at the penis–tiny and almost fully withdrawn again–slack between Enri’s splayed legs, curved to lead the attention to the soft faded white patch of scars at the base.

“Yes,” Enri said. “Pay attention to me.” Enri ran a long finger along Giovanni’s cheekbone, and Giovanni reached out to touch the pale whiteness.

“I’m sorry,” Giovanni whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Enri said.

“I have never seen . . . “

“I know.”

“I’m so sad now.”

“No.”

“I feel like, like I felt seeing my first hanging,” Giovanni said. “I can’t believe that we do these things.” He brushed the patch again, Enri shuddered, and Giovanni drew his hand up, along the length.

“Couldn’t you arrange for accidents?”

Giovanni shook his head. “Not like this. In Rome I saw children six, seven years old with the smallest hint of talent taken to a parlor.”

“What parent doesn’t hear music when their child sings? Music and profit. And then school, endless school.” Enri snorted a laugh. “And then the voice changes anyway.”

“How many dropped out?”

“You don’t know?”

Giovanni shook his head again, softer this time. In his hand, Enri’s short, sleek penis stirred, and Enri smiled at him.

“Good, good,” Enri said. “Now grasp it.”

“I know how this is done,” Giovanni said.

“Clearly,” Enri said, and laid back. “I’m happy to find I’m still attractive after that beating.”

“You are,” Giovanni said. “Were you interrupted this evening, with Joan? You do seem particularly . . . “

“I don’t know,” Enri said, closing his eyes and leaning back. “It looked bad, and that was enough. Ah. Yes, a little more, no.”

Giovanni continued on.

“I don’t think their heart was in it. They know I’m no thief come in the night . . . “

“They did follow you.”

“I think they just meant—no, wait.” Enri paused. “No, keep on. The chase back to the burrow is a long-honored tradition. Otherwise how do you know the lover is not in hiding outside, waiting for the sympathetic lady to let him in again to tend to his wounds and restart the process with new fire?”

“Like so?”

“More likely with the mouth, yes?”

“Like—” Giovanni moved down to gently apply lips. Enri twisted, biting his lip, and came, arching his back, hitting his head on the wall, and singing out a choked note. His head sagged forward and he let out a great breath.

“My gift to you,” Enri said. He panted, looked down at Giovanni with half-lidded eyes. “I’m so tired.”

“Sleep, then,” Giovanni said, and after some trial and debate found Enri could lie on his right side with Giovanni curled behind him, so long as Giovanni did not wrap an arm across Enri’s ribs.

Enri fell asleep immediately. Giovanni lay listening to his smooth, high-tone snoring until he woke to the morning. He let go of Enri and sat up, chewing on a hard piece of bread to keep his stomach from growling until he heard Enri roll onto his back, cry out in pain, and start upright. He looked down at his own red-and-purple chest and whistled.

“What are you eating?” he asked. “Can I have some? I’m hungry. Give me some.”

Giovanni handed him the rest of the bread. Enri began to gnaw at one end.

“I need to go see Bartolo,” Enri said. “If I can’t sing he’ll be furious.” He paused, chewed. “Or we could go fishing. I haven’t been fishing in a while. We could borrow a boat if the weather’s nice, head out, you . . . “

Giovanni sat on the edge of the bed.

“I have a composition for you,” Giovanni said.

“At last, your feigned reluctance falls away.” He reached forward to run his hand through Giovanni’s hair. “It’s good we are both unclothed.”

“It is for you and only for you.”

“Naked people often tell me as much.”

“It has consumed me for years. I began to hear fragments in school. As I became a singer, at times it would overwhelm me. I would try to practice a piece and instead I would imagine a soaring aria I could not sing.”

“Ah, art, always the obstacle to commerce.”

“Yes! Yes, you see exactly! Pieces came more quickly after I could no longer perform, until I thought I would go mad. I went into hiding and wrote and rewrote for weeks, until I emerged with the whole work, intact.

“I auditioned singers. But as good as the singers I could find, the men in falsetto were reedy, trilling, false and wavering, none of your range, your power, the flexibility of your voice.”

“You sound envious.”

“I am. Your talent, your ability, and your, your voice. If I could have been guaranteed it would have been a success, if it wasn’t too late, I might well have done it to myself.”

“Guaranteed?”

Giovanni looked ashamed. “I know it’s not—” He stopped, set his hands together on the table carefully. “What’s ambition without sacrifice?”

“I don’t know,” Enri said, setting the bread down.

“If you had the choice between cutting off a finger and continuing your career, or retiring to lead a church choir, wouldn’t you do it?”

“You would. I don’t have that choice.” Enri looked out the window at the light morning sky. “I’m sorry. You were auditioning.”

“I looked to women. Their voices carried feeling and range, and still they were inadequate. I auditioned singer after singer, and my compositions became ugly and hurtful in their hands. I wondered if I’d written something terrible, unworkable, and impossible. An opera that could never be sung.”

“But here you are.”

“Yes.

“I have it.”

“Of course you do.”

“I know the whole thing from the start, I could write it down for you, or, or I could sing some of it, to give you an idea, and you . . . “

“Is it in Italian?”

Giovanni’s excited expression fell away. “Is that all?”

A smile. “I only wonder if I might have to learn Bavarian, like your composition last night, which made me believe. Go on.”

“Italian,” Giovanni said. “I could write it out—”

“When you were a singer,” Enri said, and stopped himself. “When you were a great singer, did hopeful approach you and say only your voice would suit their brilliant production?”

“Yes,” Giovanni said without inflection.

“Did you ever read them?”

Giovanni waited a long time before looking back to Enri. “At first.”

Neither of them spoke.

“To get me here, with you, required extraordinary things.”

“Bavaria is not so far.”

They laughed.

“I can’t go back without you,” Giovanni said.

“That’s not my fault,” Enri replied.

“It is,” Giovanni replied.

#

On the beach, Enri alternated between swatting at sand flies with furrowed brow and then when the wind cleared them, sitting with an expression of deep contentment, eyes closed, head up.

“You don’t need me. Create them yourself. You have royal backing. Find a father with talent, the kids have tragic accidents . . . “

“No. I can’t do anything like it. It’s banned.”

Enri laughed and smiled. “It’s banned in Italy, and yet every year so many children have tragic accidents.”

Giovanni reached out to touch him briefly, as if checking.

“I have always wondered: what kind of an accident?”

“I’ve never offered one. I prefer the mystery. Some have elaborate tales of attacks by starving dogs while peeing.”

“Are the dogs—”

“Being peed on. Already angry and starving, tragically provoked. I find it a bit maudlin.”

“Farinelli fell from a horse.”

“A luxury for the rich. We poor must be bitten by dogs.”

“Return with me,” Giovanni said. “You will find fame and sweep the hinterlands to become the most famous and successful opera singer in the world. You will revive the form and be able to perform new and outstanding works by the best composers. You will become a historical figure, like Nicolini, Farinelli, Senesino.”

“Senesino.” Enri’s laugh came low and bitter.

Giovanni stood in an instant, blushing angrily. “Listen to me! I saw Senesino in Florence two years ago. He is everything ever rumored. He sings so sweetly, so clearly, we wept. You are better, Enri. He sings allegros with power, but you shake the world. He may be the best contralto, and I don’t care.”

“Good, good. You shouldn’t.”

“I heard Farinelli in Madrid perform for King Louis. He brings the softness of a whisper to the clap of thunder with such grace. He is like a soprano with the depth of the ocean.

“I saw Senesino and Farinelli together, when Farinelli the captive sang his aria with such feeling that Senesino the tyrant broke from role to embrace him. You—”

“You were there?”

“Yes!” Giovanni said.

“How? That was . . . five, six years ago? London is closer to Bavaria but just as hard to travel to. And then a few years later you see him again in Madrid? And Senesino has been in Florence recently. When did you find time to instruct in Bavaria?”

Giovanni sat.

“At first I thought you were a spy, and Bartolo agreed, but why here, in the countryside, a poor provincial capital with a useless fort? Perhaps you had complicated and patient plans to win me, take the company to Venice, where would infiltrate the court. But you’ve done everything but wound me to keep me from going. And then why do you know music the world hasn’t heard?”

“That’s not—”

“It is. I could believe that I had not heard of two operas you’d written for Bavaria, but that? That would be performed here before it could even be written and delivered. And why do you know to hate our opera?”

“It’s terrible,” Giovanni said. “Everyone of taste should know it.”

“I grew up in a conservatory,” Enri said. “And graduated into performance. All I know are the embellishments, the moving stage, the opera you despise. Why?”

“Country living has given me an appreciation for the power of simplicity.”

“Even your face admits you have not been in Bavaria at all. You think us as ignorant of it as we imagine its people.”

“I have no excuse,” Giovanni said. “Only justification.”

“Who are you?”

“We only get one chance,” Giovanni said. “Enri, the first lottery went to Alexandria, as Christ walked the Earth. Then Minoa. And somehow, against all chance, my project—I won. Each time we do this, we risk destroying the instrument of our passage. There can’t be a Monteverdi ambassador or Verdi! I wish I could stay for Verdi.”

“I don’t care.”

“I know. You’re a spoiled, petulant child, like all singers, from the musici to the female sopranos who will replace you. Even Bartolo only softens because he counts the notes he hits each night, marking the days before he becomes like me, unsuitable for performance.”

“We’re all used and discarded,” Enri said.

“Then be treasured first,” Giovanni said.

“I run from liason to liason, a music tutor in name and sometimes in practice, the safe bedmate of jilted wives and daughters who need experience without fruition, of dukes and princes who appreciate the arts and the company of sophisticated men. I am used, paid, and excused.

“My parents had me, scarred me, and sold me to the school, and the school took hundreds of us and tossed aside those whose voices still broke, or who themselves proved too brittle for the training, and they produced me, to their great local fame, which in turn allowed them to harvest again. What does it matter where I go?”

#

Giovanni found Bartolo on stage concentrating intensely on beating a floorboard into place with a mallet. He pounded in 4/4 time, and sang softly, fitting nonsense words to the melody of Wotan’s farewell. Empty, the hall smelled of burning oil and spilled food and drink.

“Lah lah lo-leeeeeeeeee la lala leeeeeeeee . . . “ Bartolo frowned at the board. “That’s not right.”

“I’m leaving,” Giovanni said.

“Ah!” Bartolo said, setting the mallet down and sitting, legs braced ahead of him. He wore a white shirt turned  transparent with his sweat. “I can’t quite get it. Can you do it again?”

“No. Stage repairs?” Giovanni said. “I insist you stop immediately. You’ll ruin the reputation of the baritones forever.”

“I’m sorry,” Bartolo said. “But no one is here and it tries to trip me every night. If Enri mis-steps . . . “

“Ah,” Giovanni said. He stopped just below the stage lip, reached out to adjust a lamp mounting.

“It’s out of oil,” Bartolo said. “Nothing more. Wait a few weeks until we know where we’ll move. Travel with us and go from there.”

“I must be back in Bavaria and quickly,” He shook his head. “It will be an unpleasant journey. I’m hoping to hire a ship to Genoa, but if not . . . “

Bartolo stood. “Will you do me a favor?”

“Anything I can.”

“Sing me another of your favorites. It doesn’t have to be yours.”

“I’m tainting you,” Giovanni said. “I’m alarmed to find you signing Wagner here. If it spreads, surely they’ll have me killed.”

“To be killed for such a composition,” Bartolo said. “Is the rest as good?”

“It’s not even his best.”

“Let me hear his best before you go.”

He reached a hand down, and helped Giovanni up onto the stage.

Enri booed him with lust and vigor from the back. “Terrible staging!”

“Can’t I keep some dignity as I leave defeated?” Giovanni said.

“This dialogue is trite!”

“Did you follow me here, you hyena?”

“Predictable! Awful delivery!” Enri yelled.

“Fuck yourself.”

“If only I could,” Enri said, with stage sorrow. “It would save me from involvement with your kind. What’s the best in your larder, you merchant of lies? Give me an exit aria, you counterfeit Bavarian.”

“Based on a play you will not live to attend, by the greatest composer you will not live to see. Live the rest of your life in this shadow, knowing you will never sing its like.”

“Sing!”

“This is Don Giovani, by Mozart.”

“This is a bored audience, authored by you.”

Giovanni’s degraded voice began rough and angry, chopping the notes, but found the piece and joined it quickly. Giovanni stood, as he sang tapping his foot to an absent orchestral accompaniment, and the house rang as if struck.

Enri chilled utterly. His hairs stood on end, he trembled in his seat.

Bartolo put his head in his hands.

“It’s better with music,” Giovanni said. “The music is amazing.”

Enri shook his head. “This opera, is there a part for—”

“No.”

Enri wiped across his face with his left hand, leaning sideways, then straightened, exhaling. “Do you have anything else by the same composer?”

“Yes,” Giovanni said.

“Do you still want me to return to,” Enri rolled his eyes, “Bavaria?”

“No, you arrogant—”

“I am humbled!” Enri shouted. “I am won! I’ll get on the boat to Genoa. After lunch. I’ll be the king of castrati in a country without subjects. I have lost my mind.”

“I am ruined,” Bartolo said. “No company worth moving, and me, soon with no voice and no compositions worth performing.” He glared at Giovanni.

“Take mine,” Giovanni said. “This is the piece that has haunted me for twenty years, simplified for local production.” He took a leather-tied sheaf of papers and held them out. “If Hera is any indication you can rework much of the speech. And you’ll want to do the staging . . . “

“How many times in my life must I be purchased?” Enri said.

“Stay with him,” Bartolo said. “See he doesn’t change his mind.”

“I will try,” Giovanni said. He embraced and held Bartolo. “I’m thinking of blinding him to keep him from distraction.”

They released, and Bartolo stepped back, his face perfectly composed sadness with a little loss and suppressed anger.

“I have considered it myself. If the northern wilderness rejects you, I will have need of a librettist. I have it on good authority I am the worst in Italy and perhaps in all of Europe.” He looked at Enri. “You will succeed no matter where you find yourself, I’m sure.”

“Again, I am bored,” Enri said. “Bored.” He began to sing the word, trying to get resonance from his new position, frowning, moving his head just a little, birdlike. “Bored! Bored!”

“It will be a great deal of time,” Giovanni said, “if ever.”

“I’ll try to fool the audiences until then,” Bartolo said.


Derek Zumsteg is the only writer to ever appear in “Best American Sportswriting” (for a Bugs Bunny piece) and get a Honorable Mention in a Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology (For “Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising” in Asimov’s). He lives and drinks in Seattle.

 

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