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Can Such Things Be? by Ambrose Bierce

Part 4 out of 4

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the stream in the middle of the valley and be borne along with it, he
knew not whither.

During the long summer day, as his sheep cropped the good grass which
the gods had made to grow for them, or lay with their forelegs
doubled under their breasts and chewed the cud, Haita, reclining in
the shadow of a tree, or sitting upon a rock, played so sweet music
upon his reed pipe that sometimes from the corner of his eye he got
accidental glimpses of the minor sylvan deities, leaning forward out
of the copse to hear; but if he looked at them directly they
vanished. From this--for he must be thinking if he would not turn
into one of his own sheep--he drew the solemn inference that
happiness may come if not sought, but if looked for will never be
seen; for next to the favor of Hastur, who never disclosed himself,
Haita most valued the friendly interest of his neighbors, the shy
immortals of the wood and stream. At nightfall he drove his flock
back to the fold, saw that the gate was secure and retired to his
cave for refreshment and for dreams.

So passed his life, one day like another, save when the storms
uttered the wrath of an offended god. Then Haita cowered in his
cave, his face hidden in his hands, and prayed that he alone might be
punished for his sins and the world saved from destruction.
Sometimes when there was a great rain, and the stream came out of its
banks, compelling him to urge his terrified flock to the uplands, he
interceded for the people in the cities which he had been told lay in
the plain beyond the two blue hills forming the gateway of his

"It is kind of thee, O Hastur," so he prayed, "to give me mountains
so near to my dwelling and my fold that I and my sheep can escape the
angry torrents; but the rest of the world thou must thyself deliver
in some way that I know not of, or I will no longer worship thee."

And Hastur, knowing that Haita was a youth who kept his word, spared
the cities and turned the waters into the sea.

So he had lived since he could remember. He could not rightly
conceive any other mode of existence. The holy hermit who dwelt at
the head of the valley, a full hour's journey away, from whom he had
heard the tale of the great cities where dwelt people--poor souls!--
who had no sheep, gave him no knowledge of that early time, when, so
he reasoned, he must have been small and helpless like a lamb.

It was through thinking on these mysteries and marvels, and on that
horrible change to silence and decay which he felt sure must some
time come to him, as he had seen it come to so many of his flock--as
it came to all living things except the birds--that Haita first
became conscious how miserable and hopeless was his lot.

"It is necessary," he said, "that I know whence and how I came; for
how can one perform his duties unless able to judge what they are by
the way in which he was intrusted with them? And what contentment
can I have when I know not how long it is going to last? Perhaps
before another sun I may be changed, and then what will become of the
sheep? What, indeed, will have become of me?"

Pondering these things Haita became melancholy and morose. He no
longer spoke cheerfully to his flock, nor ran with alacrity to the
shrine of Hastur. In every breeze he heard whispers of malign
deities whose existence he now first observed. Every cloud was a
portent signifying disaster, and the darkness was full of terrors.
His reed pipe when applied to his lips gave out no melody, but a
dismal wail; the sylvan and riparian intelligences no longer thronged
the thicket-side to listen, but fled from the sound, as he knew by
the stirred leaves and bent flowers. He relaxed his vigilance and
many of his sheep strayed away into the hills and were lost. Those
that remained became lean and ill for lack of good pasturage, for he
would not seek it for them, but conducted them day after day to the
same spot, through mere abstraction, while puzzling about life and
death--of immortality he knew not.

One day while indulging in the gloomiest reflections he suddenly
sprang from the rock upon which he sat, and with a determined gesture
of the right hand exclaimed: "I will no longer be a suppliant for
knowledge which the gods withhold. Let them look to it that they do
me no wrong. I will do my duty as best I can and if I err upon their
own heads be it!"

Suddenly, as he spoke, a great brightness fell about him, causing him
to look upward, thinking the sun had burst through a rift in the
clouds; but there were no clouds. No more than an arm's length away
stood a beautiful maiden. So beautiful she was that the flowers
about her feet folded their petals in despair and bent their heads in
token of submission; so sweet her look that the humming birds
thronged her eyes, thrusting their thirsty bills almost into them,
and the wild bees were about her lips. And such was her brightness
that the shadows of all objects lay divergent from her feet, turning
as she moved.

Haita was entranced. Rising, he knelt before her in adoration, and
she laid her hand upon his head.

"Come," she said in a voice that had the music of all the bells of
his flock--"come, thou art not to worship me, who am no goddess, but
if thou art truthful and dutiful I will abide with thee."

Haita seized her hand, and stammering his joy and gratitude arose,
and hand in hand they stood and smiled into each other's eyes. He
gazed on her with reverence and rapture. He said: "I pray thee,
lovely maid, tell me thy name and whence and why thou comest."

At this she laid a warning finger on her lip and began to withdraw.
Her beauty underwent a visible alteration that made him shudder, he
knew not why, for still she was beautiful. The landscape was
darkened by a giant shadow sweeping across the valley with the speed
of a vulture. In the obscurity the maiden's figure grew dim and
indistinct and her voice seemed to come from a distance, as she said,
in a tone of sorrowful reproach: "Presumptuous and ungrateful youth!
must I then so soon leave thee? Would nothing do but thou must at
once break the eternal compact?"

Inexpressibly grieved, Haita fell upon his knees and implored her to
remain--rose and sought her in the deepening darkness--ran in
circles, calling to her aloud, but all in vain. She was no longer
visible, but out of the gloom he heard her voice saying: "Nay, thou
shalt not have me by seeking. Go to thy duty, faithless shepherd, or
we shall never meet again."

Night had fallen; the wolves were howling in the hills and the
terrified sheep crowding about Haita's feet. In the demands of the
hour he forgot his disappointment, drove his sheep to the fold and
repairing to the place of worship poured out his heart in gratitude
to Hastur for permitting him to save his flock, then retired to his
cave and slept.

When Haita awoke the sun was high and shone in at the cave,
illuminating it with a great glory. And there, beside him, sat the
maiden. She smiled upon him with a smile that seemed the visible
music of his pipe of reeds. He dared not speak, fearing to offend
her as before, for he knew not what he could venture to say.

"Because," she said, "thou didst thy duty by the flock, and didst not
forget to thank Hastur for staying the wolves of the night, I am come
to thee again. Wilt thou have me for a companion?"

"Who would not have thee forever?" replied Haita. "Oh! never again
leave me until--until I--change and become silent and motionless."

Haita had no word for death.

"I wish, indeed," he continued, "that thou wert of my own sex, that
we might wrestle and run races and so never tire of being together."

At these words the maiden arose and passed out of the cave, and
Haita, springing from his couch of fragrant boughs to overtake and
detain her, observed to his astonishment that the rain was falling
and the stream in the middle of the valley had come out of its banks.
The sheep were bleating in terror, for the rising waters had invaded
their fold. And there was danger for the unknown cities of the
distant plain.

It was many days before Haita saw the maiden again. One day he was
returning from the head of the valley, where he had gone with ewe's
milk and oat cake and berries for the holy hermit, who was too old
and feeble to provide himself with food.

"Poor old man!" he said aloud, as he trudged along homeward. "I will
return to-morrow and bear him on my back to my own dwelling, where I
can care for him. Doubtless it is for this that Hastur has reared me
all these many years, and gives me health and strength."

As he spoke, the maiden, clad in glittering garments, met him in the
path with a smile that took away his breath.

"I am come again," she said, "to dwell with thee if thou wilt now
have me, for none else will. Thou mayest have learned wisdom, and
art willing to take me as I am, nor care to know."

Haita threw himself at her feet. "Beautiful being," he cried, "if
thou wilt but deign to accept all the devotion of my heart and soul--
after Hastur be served--it is thine forever. But, alas! thou art
capricious and wayward. Before to-morrow's sun I may lose thee
again. Promise, I beseech thee, that however in my ignorance I may
offend, thou wilt forgive and remain always with me."

Scarcely had he finished speaking when a troop of bears came out of
the hills, racing toward him with crimson mouths and fiery eyes. The
maiden again vanished, and he turned and fled for his life. Nor did
he stop until he was in the cot of the holy hermit, whence he had set
out. Hastily barring the door against the bears he cast himself upon
the ground and wept.

"My son," said the hermit from his couch of straw, freshly gathered
that morning by Haita's hands, "it is not like thee to weep for
bears--tell me what sorrow hath befallen thee, that age may minister
to the hurts of youth with such balms as it hath of its wisdom."

Haita told him all: how thrice he had met the radiant maid, and
thrice she had left him forlorn. He related minutely all that had
passed between them, omitting no word of what had been said.

When he had ended, the holy hermit was a moment silent, then said:
"My son, I have attended to thy story, and I know the maiden. I have
myself seen her, as have many. Know, then, that her name, which she
would not even permit thee to inquire, is Happiness. Thou saidst the
truth to her, that she is capricious for she imposeth conditions that
man cannot fulfill, and delinquency is punished by desertion. She
cometh only when unsought, and will not be questioned. One
manifestation of curiosity, one sign of doubt, one expression of
misgiving, and she is away! How long didst thou have her at any time
before she fled?"

"Only a single instant," answered Haita, blushing with shame at the
confession. "Each time I drove her away in one moment."

"Unfortunate youth!" said the holy hermit, "but for thine
indiscretion thou mightst have had her for two."


For there be divers sorts of death--some wherein the body remaineth;
and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly
occurreth only in solitude (such is God's will) and, none seeing the
end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey--which indeed
he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant
testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and
this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigor for
many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the
body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the
body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their
full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there
be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I
noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my
face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with
astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me
stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall
overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn
wind with heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion.
Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and
somber-colored rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one
another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if
they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen
event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in
this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation.

The day, I thought, must be far advanced, though the sun was
invisible; and although sensible that the air was raw and chill my
consciousness of that fact was rather mental than physical--I had no
feeling of discomfort. Over all the dismal landscape a canopy of
low, lead-colored clouds hung like a visible curse. In all this
there were a menace and a portent--a hint of evil, an intimation of
doom. Bird, beast, or insect there was none. The wind sighed in the
bare branches of the dead trees and the gray grass bent to whisper
its dread secret to the earth; but no other sound nor motion broke
the awful repose of that dismal place.

I observed in the herbage a number of weather-worn stones, evidently
shaped with tools. They were broken, covered with moss and half
sunken in the earth. Some lay prostrate, some leaned at various
angles, none was vertical. They were obviously headstones of graves,
though the graves themselves no longer existed as either mounds or
depressions; the years had leveled all. Scattered here and there,
more massive blocks showed where some pompous tomb or ambitious
monument had once flung its feeble defiance at oblivion. So old
seemed these relics, these vestiges of vanity and memorials of
affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained--so neglected,
deserted, forgotten the place, that I could not help thinking myself
the discoverer of the burial-ground of a prehistoric race of men
whose very name was long extinct.

Filled with these reflections, I was for some time heedless of the
sequence of my own experiences, but soon I thought, "How came I
hither?" A moment's reflection seemed to make this all clear and
explain at the same time, though in a disquieting way, the singular
character with which my fancy had invested all that I saw or heard.
I was ill. I remembered now that I had been prostrated by a sudden
fever, and that my family had told me that in my periods of delirium
I had constantly cried out for liberty and air, and had been held in
bed to prevent my escape out-of-doors. Now I had eluded the
vigilance of my attendants and had wandered hither to--to where? I
could not conjecture. Clearly I was at a considerable distance from
the city where I dwelt--the ancient and famous city of Carcosa.

No signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising
smoke, no watch-dog's bark, no lowing of cattle, no shouts of
children at play--nothing but that dismal burial-place, with its air
of mystery and dread, due to my own disordered brain. Was I not
becoming again delirious, there beyond human aid? Was it not indeed
ALL an illusion of my madness? I called aloud the names of my wives
and sons, reached out my hands in search of theirs, even as I walked
among the crumbling stones and in the withered grass.

A noise behind me caused me to turn about. A wild animal--a lynx--
was approaching. The thought came to me: If I break down here in
the desert--if the fever return and I fail, this beast will be at my
throat. I sprang toward it, shouting. It trotted tranquilly by
within a hand's breadth of me and disappeared behind a rock.

A moment later a man's head appeared to rise out of the ground a
short distance away. He was ascending the farther slope of a low
hill whose crest was hardly to be distinguished from the general
level. His whole figure soon came into view against the background
of gray cloud. He was half naked, half clad in skins. His hair was
unkempt, his beard long and ragged. In one hand he carried a bow and
arrow; the other held a blazing torch with a long trail of black
smoke. He walked slowly and with caution, as if he feared falling
into some open grave concealed by the tall grass. This strange
apparition surprised but did not alarm, and taking such a course as
to intercept him I met him almost face to face, accosting him with
the familiar salutation, "God keep you."

He gave no heed, nor did he arrest his pace.

"Good stranger," I continued, "I am ill and lost. Direct me, I
beseech you, to Carcosa."

The man broke into a barbarous chant in an unknown tongue, passing on
and away.

An owl on the branch of a decayed tree hooted dismally and was
answered by another in the distance. Looking upward, I saw through a
sudden rift in the clouds Aldebaran and the Hyades! In all this
there was a hint of night--the lynx, the man with the torch, the owl.
Yet I saw--I saw even the stars in absence of the darkness. I saw,
but was apparently not seen nor heard. Under what awful spell did I

I seated myself at the root of a great tree, seriously to consider
what it were best to do. That I was mad I could no longer doubt, yet
recognized a ground of doubt in the conviction. Of fever I had no
trace. I had, withal, a sense of exhilaration and vigor altogether
unknown to me--a feeling of mental and physical exaltation. My
senses seemed all alert; I could feel the air as a ponderous
substance; I could hear the silence.

A great root of the giant tree against whose trunk I leaned as I sat
held inclosed in its grasp a slab of stone, a part of which protruded
into a recess formed by another root. The stone was thus partly
protected from the weather, though greatly decomposed. Its edges
were worn round, its corners eaten away, its surface deeply furrowed
and scaled. Glittering particles of mica were visible in the earth
about it--vestiges of its decomposition. This stone had apparently
marked the grave out of which the tree had sprung ages ago. The
tree's exacting roots had robbed the grave and made the stone a

A sudden wind pushed some dry leaves and twigs from the uppermost
face of the stone; I saw the low-relief letters of an inscription and
bent to read it. God in Heaven! MY name in full!--the date of MY
birth!--the date of MY death!

A level shaft of light illuminated the whole side of the tree as I
sprang to my feet in terror. The sun was rising in the rosy east. I
stood between the tree and his broad red disk--no shadow darkened the

A chorus of howling wolves saluted the dawn. I saw them sitting on
their haunches, singly and in groups, on the summits of irregular
mounds and tumuli filling a half of my desert prospect and extending
to the horizon. And then I knew that these were ruins of the ancient
and famous city of Carcosa.

Such are the facts imparted to the medium Bayrolles by the spirit
Hoseib Alar Robardin.


A man stepped out of the darkness into the little illuminated circle
about our failing campfire and seated himself upon a rock.

"You are not the first to explore this region," he said, gravely.

Nobody controverted his statement; he was himself proof of its truth,
for he was not of our party and must have been somewhere near when we
camped. Moreover, he must have companions not far away; it was not a
place where one would be living or traveling alone. For more than a
week we had seen, besides ourselves and our animals, only such living
things as rattlesnakes and horned toads. In an Arizona desert one
does not long coexist with only such creatures as these: one must
have pack animals, supplies, arms--"an outfit." And all these imply
comrades. It was perhaps a doubt as to what manner of men this
unceremonious stranger's comrades might be, together with something
in his words interpretable as a challenge, that caused every man of
our half-dozen "gentlemen adventurers" to rise to a sitting posture
and lay his hand upon a weapon--an act signifying, in that time and
place, a policy of expectation. The stranger gave the matter no
attention and began again to speak in the same deliberate,
uninflected monotone in which he had delivered his first sentence:

"Thirty years ago Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W. Kent and
Berry Davis, all of Tucson, crossed the Santa Catalina mountains and
traveled due west, as nearly as the configuration of the country
permitted. We were prospecting and it was our intention, if we found
nothing, to push through to the Gila river at some point near Big
Bend, where we understood there was a settlement. We had a good
outfit but no guide--just Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W.
Kent and Berry Davis."

The man repeated the names slowly and distinctly, as if to fix them
in the memories of his audience, every member of which was now
attentively observing him, but with a slackened apprehension
regarding his possible companions somewhere in the darkness that
seemed to enclose us like a black wall; in the manner of this
volunteer historian was no suggestion of an unfriendly purpose. His
act was rather that of a harmless lunatic than an enemy. We were not
so new to the country as not to know that the solitary life of many a
plainsman had a tendency to develop eccentricities of conduct and
character not always easily distinguishable from mental aberration.
A man is like a tree: in a forest of his fellows he will grow as
straight as his generic and individual nature permits; alone in the
open, he yields to the deforming stresses and tortions that environ
him. Some such thoughts were in my mind as I watched the man from
the shadow of my hat, pulled low to shut out the firelight. A
witless fellow, no doubt, but what could he be doing there in the
heart of a desert?

Having undertaken to tell this story, I wish that I could describe
the man's appearance; that would be a natural thing to do.
Unfortunately, and somewhat strangely, I find myself unable to do so
with any degree of confidence, for afterward no two of us agreed as
to what he wore and how he looked; and when I try to set down my own
impressions they elude me. Anyone can tell some kind of story;
narration is one of the elemental powers of the race. But the talent
for description is a gift.

Nobody having broken silence the visitor went on to say:

"This country was not then what it is now. There was not a ranch
between the Gila and the Gulf. There was a little game here and
there in the mountains, and near the infrequent water-holes grass
enough to keep our animals from starvation. If we should be so
fortunate as to encounter no Indians we might get through. But
within a week the purpose of the expedition had altered from
discovery of wealth to preservation of life. We had gone too far to
go back, for what was ahead could be no worse than what was behind;
so we pushed on, riding by night to avoid Indians and the intolerable
heat, and concealing ourselves by day as best we could. Sometimes,
having exhausted our supply of wild meat and emptied our casks, we
were days without food or drink; then a water-hole or a shallow pool
in the bottom of an arroyo so restored our strength and sanity that
we were able to shoot some of the wild animals that sought it also.
Sometimes it was a bear, sometimes an antelope, a coyote, a cougar--
that was as God pleased; all were food.

"One morning as we skirted a mountain range, seeking a practicable
pass, we were attacked by a band of Apaches who had followed our
trail up a gulch--it is not far from here. Knowing that they
outnumbered us ten to one, they took none of their usual cowardly
precautions, but dashed upon us at a gallop, firing and yelling.
Fighting was out of the question: we urged our feeble animals up the
gulch as far as there was footing for a hoof, then threw ourselves
out of our saddles and took to the chaparral on one of the slopes,
abandoning our entire outfit to the enemy. But we retained our
rifles, every man--Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W. Kent and
Berry Davis."

"Same old crowd," said the humorist of our party. He was an Eastern
man, unfamiliar with the decent observances of social intercourse. A
gesture of disapproval from our leader silenced him and the stranger
proceeded with his tale:

"The savages dismounted also, and some of them ran up the gulch
beyond the point at which we had left it, cutting off further retreat
in that direction and forcing us on up the side. Unfortunately the
chaparral extended only a short distance up the slope, and as we came
into the open ground above we took the fire of a dozen rifles; but
Apaches shoot badly when in a hurry, and God so willed it that none
of us fell. Twenty yards up the slope, beyond the edge of the brush,
were vertical cliffs, in which, directly in front of us, was a narrow
opening. Into that we ran, finding ourselves in a cavern about as
large as an ordinary room in a house. Here for a time we were safe:
a single man with a repeating rifle could defend the entrance against
all the Apaches in the land. But against hunger and thirst we had no
defense. Courage we still had, but hope was a memory.

"Not one of those Indians did we afterward see, but by the smoke and
glare of their fires in the gulch we knew that by day and by night
they watched with ready rifles in the edge of the bush--knew that if
we made a sortie not a man of us would live to take three steps into
the open. For three days, watching in turn, we held out before our
suffering became insupportable. Then--it was the morning of the
fourth day--Ramon Gallegos said:

"'Senores, I know not well of the good God and what please him. I
have live without religion, and I am not acquaint with that of you.
Pardon, senores, if I shock you, but for me the time is come to beat
the game of the Apache.'

"He knelt upon the rock floor of the cave and pressed his pistol
against his temple. 'Madre de Dios,' he said, 'comes now the soul of
Ramon Gallegos.'

"And so he left us--William Shaw, George W. Kent and Berry Davis.

"I was the leader: it was for me to speak.

"'He was a brave man,' I said--'he knew when to die, and how. It is
foolish to go mad from thirst and fall by Apache bullets, or be
skinned alive--it is in bad taste. Let us join Ramon Gallegos.'

"'That is right,' said William Shaw.

"'That is right,' said George W. Kent.

"I straightened the limbs of Ramon Gallegos and put a handkerchief
over his face. Then William Shaw said: 'I should like to look like
that--a little while.'

"And George W. Kent said that he felt that way, too.

"'It shall be so,' I said: 'the red devils will wait a week.
William Shaw and George W. Kent, draw and kneel.'

"They did so and I stood before them.

"'Almighty God, our Father,' said I.

"'Almighty God, our Father,' said William Shaw.

"'Almighty God, our Father,' said George W. Kent.

"'Forgive us our sins,' said I.

"'Forgive us our sins,' said they.

"'And receive our souls.'

"'And receive our souls.'



"I laid them beside Ramon Gallegos and covered their faces."

There was a quick commotion on the opposite side of the campfire:
one of our party had sprung to his feet, pistol in hand.

"And you!" he shouted--"YOU dared to escape?--you dare to be alive?
You cowardly hound, I'll send you to join them if I hang for it!"

But with the leap of a panther the captain was upon him, grasping his
wrist. "Hold it in, Sam Yountsey, hold it in!"

We were now all upon our feet--except the stranger, who sat
motionless and apparently inattentive. Some one seized Yountsey's
other arm.

"Captain," I said, "there is something wrong here. This fellow is
either a lunatic or merely a liar--just a plain, every-day liar whom
Yountsey has no call to kill. If this man was of that party it had
five members, one of whom--probably himself--he has not named."

"Yes," said the captain, releasing the insurgent, who sat down,
"there is something--unusual. Years ago four dead bodies of white
men, scalped and shamefully mutilated, were found about the mouth of
that cave. They are buried there; I have seen the graves--we shall
all see them to-morrow."

The stranger rose, standing tall in the light of the expiring fire,
which in our breathless attention to his story we had neglected to
keep going.

"There were four," he said--"Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W.
Kent and Berry Davis."

With this reiterated roll-call of the dead he walked into the
darkness and we saw him no more.

At that moment one of our party, who had been on guard, strode in
among us, rifle in hand and somewhat excited.

"Captain," he said, "for the last half-hour three men have been
standing out there on the mesa." He pointed in the direction taken
by the stranger. "I could see them distinctly, for the moon is up,
but as they had no guns and I had them covered with mine I thought it
was their move. They have made none, but, damn it! they have got on
to my nerves."

"Go back to your post, and stay till you see them again," said the
captain. "The rest of you lie down again, or I'll kick you all into
the fire."

The sentinel obediently withdrew, swearing, and did not return. As
we were arranging our blankets the fiery Yountsey said: "I beg your
pardon, Captain, but who the devil do you take them to be?"

"Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw and George W. Kent."

"But how about Berry Davis? I ought to have shot him."

"Quite needless; you couldn't have made him any deader. Go to


{1} Rough notes of this tale were found among the papers of the late
Leigh Bierce. It is printed here with such revision only as the
author might himself have made in transcription.

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