Berta Isla

Javier Marías (Trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

August 7, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from Javier Marías' novel, Berta Isla. Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. He has published fifteen novels, including The Infatuations and A Heart So White, as well as three collections of short stories and several volumes of essays. His work has been translated into forty-four languages, has sold more than eight and a half million copies worldwide, and has won a dazzling array of international literary awards.

In 1969, two fashions were doing the rounds in Europe, both mainly affecting the young: politics and sex. The May 1968 riots in Paris and the Prague Spring crushed by Soviet tanks set half the continent buzzing, at least temporarily. In Spain, a dictatorship that had begun more than three decades earlier was still dragging on. Strikes by workers and students prompted the Francoist regime to declare a state of emergency throughout the country, although this was merely a euphemism for reducing still further our few, feeble rights, increasing the prerogatives and the impunity of the police, and giving them a free hand to do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. On 20 January, the law student Enrique Ruano, who, three days before, had been arrested for throwing leaflets at members of the much-feared Brigada Político-Social, died while in custody. The official version, which kept changing and was full of contradictions, was that the twenty-one-year-old had been taken to the seventh floor of a building in what is now Calle Príncipe de Vergara in order to be searched, but that, once there, he broke away from the three policemen guarding him and either fell or threw himself from a window. The Minister of Information, Fraga Iribarne, and the newspaper ABC did their best to present his death as a suicide and to suggest that Ruano was mentally frail and unbalanced, publishing on the front page and in installments a letter he had written to his psychiatrist, which they cut up and manipulated so that it appeared to have been extracted from a supposedly tormented private diary. However, almost no one believed this version and the episode was seen as a political assassination, since the student was a member of the Frente de Liberación Popular, or “Felipe,” a clandestine anti-Franco organisation of little account, as all such organisations inevitably were (of little account and clandestine, that is). The general public disbelief was perfectly justified, and not just because of the deep-seated habit of lying common to all governments under the dictatorship: twenty-seven years later, when Ruano’s body was exhumed for the problematic trial of the three policemen involved—Spain was, by then, a democracy—they found that part of his clavicle had been sawn off, because, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, that bone had been pierced by a bullet. At the time, the autopsy had been falsified, the family were not allowed to see the body or to publish an obituary in the newspaper; and Fraga, in person, phoned Ruano’s father to urge him not to protest and to keep quiet, saying words to the effect of: “Remember you have a daughter to worry about too,” referring to Ruano’s sister, Margot, who was also involved in politics. After so much time had passed, it was impossible to prove anything, and the three sociales, or members of the Brigada Política-Social, were found not guilty of murder—Colino, Galván and Simón were their names—but the young man had probably been tortured while under arrest, including on the final day, when they took him to that seventh-floor room in Príncipe de Vergara, shot him and threw him out into the street. That is what his companions believed in 1969.

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She also knew that being a woman and very young (she was in her first year at university) was no safeguard against whatever punishment might befall her.

So great was the anger among students that, during the demonstrations that followed, even students like Berta Isla took part, students who had previously been either apolitical or unwilling to take risks or to court trouble. Some university friends persuaded her to join them on a demonstration arranged one evening in Plaza de Manuel Becerra, not far from Las Ventas bullring. Such demonstrations, all of which were illegal, never lasted very long: the armed police, the grises—so-called because of their grey uniforms—would know about them beforehand and would disperse any group by using physical force, and, if a group did manage to gather in strength and march a few meters, chanting slogans, not to mention throwing stones at shops and banks, they would immediately set upon them, either on foot or on horseback, with their long, black, flexible truncheons (the ones wielded by the mounted police were longer and even more flexible, rather like short, fat whips), and there would always be one particularly cocky or nervous individual among them who would get out his pistol so as to instill more fear or in order to feel less afraid himself.

As soon as the scuffle began, Berta found herself running ahead of the police, along with a number of friends and strangers. Each one raced off in a different direction, in the hope that their pursuers wouldn’t choose them as their target but would beat up someone else instead. She was a novice at such insurrections and had no idea what to do for the best, whether to go down into the metro or take refuge in a bar and mingle with the other customers or stay out in the street, where there was always the possibility of escaping and not being trapped in one place. She knew that being arrested at some political rally would mean, at best, a night and a beating in the Dirección General de Seguridad—where the security police had their headquarters—and, at worst, a trial and a prison sentence of months or even a couple of years, depending on how malevolent the judge was feeling, as well as immediate expulsion from the university. She also knew that being a woman and very young (she was in her first year at university) was no safeguard against whatever punishment might befall her.

She ran still faster, fueled by the final impetus of despair, which is what we always do even when we’re doomed.

She soon lost sight of her friends, and in the dark night, only dimly lit by the rather feeble street lamps, she began to panic, running aimlessly this way and that—the January chill soon disappearing beneath the burning sensation of dangers unknown—instinctively breaking away from the rest of the crowd and distancing herself from the Plaza, racing off down a rather narrow nearby street, which was fairly empty of other demonstrators, the rest of the stampede having opted for other paths or doing their best not to get too dispersed, in the hope that they might regroup and vainly try again, their fear and fury only growing, their courage high, pulses racing and all well-laid plans banished. She was running as if the devil himself were after her, absolutely terrified, glimpsing no one either to left or right out of the corners of her eyes as she flew along, intending never to stop or not until she thought she was safe, until she had left the city behind her or reached home, and then, without in the least diminishing her speed, it occurred to her to look back—perhaps she heard a strange noise, the sound of snorting or trotting, a summer sound, a village or rustic sound, a sound from childhood—and almost immediately behind her she saw the huge figure of a gris on horseback, his truncheon already raised, about to unleash a blow on the back of her neck or on her buttocks or her back, one that would doubtless knock her over, probably leaving her unconscious or dazed, unable to fight back or keep running, fated to receive a second and a third blow if the policeman was in a particularly vicious mood, or, if he wasn’t, being dragged off in handcuffs and thrown into a police van and, in just a few rash, unlucky moments, seeing her present utterly altered and her future ruined. She saw the face of the black horse and thought she also saw that of the man in grey, even though his forehead was covered by his helmet, and his chin by the rather thick, sturdy strap. Berta didn’t stumble nor was she paralyzed with fright, instead, quite pointlessly, she ran still faster, fueled by the final impetus of despair, which is what we always do even when we’re doomed; after all, what chance do a young woman’s legs have against the legs of a swift quadruped, and yet those legs nonetheless quickened their pace, like those of an ignorant beast still convinced it can escape. Then an arm appeared from an alleyway, and a hand tugged hard at her, making her lose her balance and fall flat on her face, but snatching her away from horse and rider and the inevitable blow from that truncheon. Horse and rider continued on past, at least for a few meters, out of sheer inertia, it’s very hard to rein in a horse at full gallop, and, she hoped, horse and rider would lose interest and go in search of other subversives to punish, for there were hundreds of them around. With another tug the hand helped her to her feet, and Berta found herself looking at a rather handsome young man, who didn’t appear to be a student or the type to take part in protests: agitators don’t usually wear a tie or a hat, and this young man did, as well as an overcoat that had aspirations to elegance, being long and navy blue and with the collar turned up. He was an old-fashioned sort, and the hat had a rather narrow brim, as if it were a hand-me-down.

“Come on, girl, let’s go,” he said. “We need to leg it—now.” And he again tugged at her hand, trying to get her to move, to guide her, save her.

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However, before they could disappear down the alleyway, the mounted policeman reappeared, having hastened back for his prey. He had turned his mount round and resumed his pursuit, as if annoyed not to have caught a specimen he had already picked out and which he had (almost) in his bag. Now he would have to choose between two, Berta and the young man who had dared to whisk her away, or, if he was quick and took careful aim, he could catch them both, especially if some fellow policemen came to his aid, although there were none in sight, most of them would be happily laboring away in the Plaza, lashing out blindly to left and right, in case one of their superiors saw them holding back and then they’d be in trouble later on. The young man in the hat squeezed Berta’s hand, but he didn’t seem alarmed; rather, he stood there defiantly and coolly erect, scornful of the danger and refusing to reveal any fear. The gris was still holding his truncheon in one hand, but not in any threaten- ing way, he was resting it on the wrist of the hand holding the reins, as if it were a fishing rod or a flexible reed. He was very young too, he had blue eyes and very thick, dark eyebrows, at least those were the features most visible beneath his helmet, pleasant features that spoke of the countryside, of the south, probably Andalusia. Berta and the old-fashioned youth stood watching him, not moving, not daring to race off down the alleyway, from which it might or might not be easy to escape. In fact, they knew at once there was no need to run away from that particular horseman.

In those days, though, no one could bring themselves to thank a gris, one of Franco’s policemen, even if they deserved thanks.

“I wasn’t going to hit you, girl. What do you take me for?” he said to Berta; both men had addressed her as “girl,” a term not much used in the Madrid of the time, especially among young men. “I just wanted to get you away from the mob at all costs. You’re very young to be caught up in things like that. Go on, go home. And as for you,” he said, addressing the old-fashioned youth, “don’t get in my way again, or you’ll pay for it with a beating and a month or two in the clink. Not this time though. Anyway, scram, both of you. You’ve already taken up quite enough of my time.”

The other young man, with his neatly knotted tie and his long overcoat, was quite unfazed by this future threat. He remained erect, with his cold, alert eyes fixed on those of the horseman, as if he were divining his intentions and was convinced that, if it came to it, he would be able to unseat him from where he stood. And contrary to what he had said, the policeman did not leave at once, as if he were waiting for them to apologize first, or wanted to gaze his fill on the young woman and not lose sight of her until she had vanished from his field of vision and his eyes could no longer see her, however hard they tried. Neither she nor the young man said anything, and, later on, Berta Isla regretted not thanking him. In those days, though, no one could bring themselves to thank a gris, one of Franco’s policemen, even if they deserved thanks. Most people considered them to be utterly despicable, the enemy, the ones who pursued and beat and arrested, ruining lives only just begun.


Berta had torn her stockings, one knee was bleeding and she was still very frightened; seeing that horse just behind her and the policeman’s truncheon raised and about to come down on her neck or her back had left her a bundle of nerves, despite the benign outcome, which had also left her feeling strangely weak. These mixed emotions momentarily exhausted her, she felt disoriented and will-less, and wouldn’t have known where to go just at that moment. The old-fashioned young man, still holding her by the hand as if she were a child, hurriedly led her away from the most dangerous zone and headed towards Las Ventas, saying:

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“I live right near here. Come in and I’ll clean that wound and let you calm down a bit. Come on. You can’t go back home looking like that, woman. You need to rest and get cleaned up a bit.” He no longer called her “girl.” “What’s your name? Are you a student?”

“Yes. My first name’s Berta. Berta Isla. What’s yours?”

“Esteban. Esteban Yanes. I’m a banderillero.”

Berta was surprised. She had never met anyone involved in bull-fighting, nor had she ever imagined the bit-part players of that world outside the ring and in civvies.

“A banderillero of bulls, you mean?”

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“No, rhinoceroses, what do you think? What other animal do they stick darts in?”

This distracted her for a few seconds from her agitated, exhausted state; she would have smiled if she hadn’t been so dazed. It gave her time to think: “He’s used to dealing with animals far more dangerous than a highly trained horse; that’s why he wasn’t frightened and didn’t turn a hair, because he would have known how to dodge it, perhaps even draw it away from me.” And she eyed him with growing curiosity. All it occurred to her to say, though, and at the risk of seeming impertinent, was: “I don’t know if you realize it, but that hat really doesn’t suit you.” This had been her initial thought when she saw him in the alleyway, one of those superfluous but persistent thoughts that remains floating around in your head, waiting to find its moment, in the midst of other more urgent tasks.

He let go of her hand, immediately removed his hat and looked at it with interest, turning it round and round in his hands; standing in the middle of the street, he asked in a disappointed tone of voice: “Really? You’re kidding. What’s wrong with it? Do you honestly think it doesn’t suit me? It’s good quality, you know.”

He had a thick thatch of hair, parted on the left, so that the right-hand side almost formed a fringe; indeed, it was hard to understand how all that hair had fitted so neatly underneath the hat. He was more attractive like that, his now liberated hair setting his features in their proper place or giving them more definition. His very wide-set, brown, almost plum-colored eyes lent a clarity and candor to his face, it was a face entirely without duplicity, not in the least self-absorbed or evasive or embarrassed, the kind of face of which people used to say you could read like a book (although some books, of course, are totally impenetrable and unreadable), a face that seems to conceal nothing beyond what it actually expresses. He had a large, straight nose, and strong, slightly prominent teeth, the sort that appear to have a life of their own when revealed by a generous smile, an African smile that lit up his other features, so that his whole face invited one to trust its owner. The kind of teeth that would make certain people think: “If I could just borrow those teeth, things would be very different, especially when I went out on the pull.”

Nothing beats believing you’ve lost your will, feeling you’re at the mercy of the come-and-go of the waves and can abandon yourself and allow yourself to be rocked.

“No, it doesn’t suit you at all. The brim’s too narrow for the crown. It’s just not you. It makes your head look much smaller than it is, almost like a pinhead, and you haven’t got a small head.”

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“There’s nothing more to be said, then. To hell with the hat. I certainly don’t want to be a pinhead,” said the banderillero Esteban Yanes, and he blithely tossed the hat into a nearby litter bin. Then he smiled and gave a wave of his hand, as if he had just successfully skewered a bull with a couple of banderillas.

Berta gave a start and felt guilty, not expecting that her comments would condemn the hat to death. (Or to being left to adorn the disheveled locks of the beggar who would doubtless retrieve it.) He might not have inherited the hat, but he had paid good money for it. He was a few years older than her, about twenty-three or twenty-four, not an age to be exactly swimming in money, certainly not in those days.

“Look, take no notice of me. If you like the hat, what does it matter what I think? You don’t even know me. There’s no need to be quite so drastic.”

“One look at you was enough for me to do whatever you tell me, regardless of its drasticity.” This sounded like a compliment if one judged it solely by the words used (although she doubted if that last word actually existed, but then those who care little about such things are often more cheerfully and adroitly inventive than those who do). Neither his tone of voice nor his expression, however, seemed like mere gallantry. Or perhaps gallantry was such an antiquated concept that Berta failed to recognize it: none of her male friends, not even those who fancied her, not even Tom, would ever have said such a thing (the age of surliness was just beginning, in which good manners were seen as a fault and bad manners a mark of honor). “Come on, we need to clean that wound if you don’t want it to get infected.”

When she saw his apartment, Berta decided that he wasn’t badly off at all. The furniture was new and barely used (although admittedly there wasn’t much of it) and the apartment itself was quite a lot bigger than the ones rented by the few students who could afford it and which were nearly always shared by at least two people, if not four or five. This was a proper apartment, although clearly inhabited by a bachelor, a single man, and one who had only recently moved in. Everything seemed orderly, even deliberate, and yet still had an air of provisionality. A few photos of bullfights adorned the walls, as well as some posters advertising corridas, on one of which she spotted names that even she recognized as being famous: San- tiago Martín, “El Viti,” and Gregorio Sánchez. Fortunately, there was no bull’s head hung up and framed like some exaggeratedly high-relief sculpture; perhaps they were only given to matadors, not to subalterns, but then Berta knew nothing about the subject.

“Do you live alone?” she asked. “Is all this just for you?”

“Yes, I’ve been renting it for a few months now. I won’t be using it much during the season, because I’m hardly ever in Madrid, and it costs me an arm and a leg. But lately, things have worked out pretty well for me as a suelto, and we all need somewhere to lay our head when there’s nothing going on. And I’ve never had a contract to work the winter season in Latin America. And the fact is you get sick to death of guesthouses and hotels.”

“A suelto?”

“I’ll explain in a minute, while I’m cleaning that wound. Come on, sit down over there,” he pointed to an armchair with a rug underneath it, “and take off your stockings. They’re no good for anything anyway. If you haven’t got a spare pair with you, I’ll pop out later and buy you some, although you’ll have to tell me where to buy them, because I haven’t the faintest. I’ll go and fetch the first-aid box.”

He left the room, and Berta could hear him in the distance, rummaging around, opening and closing cabinets and drawers, presumably in the bathroom. She took off her overcoat and put it down on the sofa nearby, then sat in the armchair he had indicated and took off her boots—knee-high zip-up boots—along with her dark stockings that were, in fact, tights, which were already the norm then. She had to pull her skirt up quite some way to get them off, because it was a straight, almost tight-fitting skirt, and rather short—it covered about two-thirds of her thighs, possibly less—as was also the fashion at the time. Her decision to join the demonstration had been so spur-of-the-moment that she had left home dressed to go to her classes, and certainly not suitably attired to flee down the streets pursued by a mounted policeman. While she was removing them, she glanced a couple of times at the door through which her host had disappeared, in case he should reappear in the midst of her partial disrobing (she hadn’t counted, of course, but she had already taken off four items, if you included her scarf, that is, so half of her clothes: she was left wearing only her skirt, a soft V-necked sweater, her knickers and her bra). She looked for looking’s sake really, because she realized that she didn’t much care if he did catch a glimpse of her with her skirt hitched up; the combination of a very recent shock and a very present weariness does tend to lower a person’s guard, and she was overcome by a kind of indifference, almost complacency, after having emerged unscathed from that predicament and feeling able, at last, to begin to relax. Besides, she trusted young Yanes, she felt comfortable in his company. Once she had finished that rapid shedding of clothes (her tights lay in tatters on the floor, but she didn’t have the energy to pick them up), she sat back in the chair, her legs bare and her bare feet resting on the rug; she glanced casually at the blood on her knee, and felt suddenly rather sleepy, but there wasn’t time for that feeling to take proper hold because the banderillero returned, having already removed overcoat, jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves. In one hand he was holding a glass of Coca-Cola with ice, which he gave to her, and in the other, a small white first-aid box complete with handle, perhaps all bullfighters had one at home, just in case they needed to change bandages. A precaution. Yanes picked up a low stool and sat down in front of her.

Esteban Yanes, bold and resolute, did, after that minute, go too far.

“Right,” he said. “First, I’ll clean the wound a little, and that won’t hurt much.” Berta instinctively crossed her legs, partly to make things easier and to bring her knee closer to him, and partly to make things more difficult (more difficult for him to see up her skirt). “No, don’t cross your legs, that won’t help. Rest your calf on my thigh, it will be easier like that.” He carefully washed the wound with a small sponge and some soap and water, then he dabbed it dry with a little towel, as if the last thing he wanted was to hurt her or rub too hard. Then he blew on the wound, keeping his breath cool, or trying to. From his low position, Yanes could now clearly see up her short, tight skirt (with her legs uncrossed the fabric was pulled taut), the crotch of her knickers would have entered his field of vision, and if he needed a better angle, he would only have to move his thigh to the left, and Berta’s calf, resting on top of his thigh, would have to obey. And that is exactly what he did, he shifted his thigh imperceptibly to one side, and the desired image was revealed to him by her parted legs, from ankle to groin, so to speak (from bare feet to groin); they were strong legs, sturdy but not fat, American legs, firm and muscular and quite long, legs that invited one to linger and go higher, and there is always a slight mound visible at the end (or, rather, a small hillock, a swelling, a throbbing). “I’m going to apply a little alcohol now, and that will sting at first, but not for long.” He poured some alcohol onto a piece of cotton wool, and when it was well soaked, so that no fibers would stick to the wound, he ran it over the cut, delicately, tenderly. And then he blew again; well, he actually blew on an area just above the knee, as if his aim had failed him, or perhaps he was trying to soothe a place that did not yet sting or burn.

The stinging sensation immediately became evident on Berta’s face (she clenched her teeth and drew her lips back), but the pain was short-lived. She felt as she had when she was a child and some adult was cleaning a cut or a scratch. It was pleasant to feel herself once again in someone else’s hands, to have someone touch her and do useful things with his hands, it didn’t much matter what: at first, it probably wasn’t so very different from the sensation caused by a barber when he passes the razor or the shaver over the neck of a man, who then almost falls asleep, or even that provoked by the dentist when he only probes or causes some vibration, but no pain; and it was even more reminiscent of when the doctor listens and palpates and drums with one finger, the middle finger, then presses and asks: “Does it hurt here? And here? And here?” There is an element of pleasure in allowing oneself to be handled and touched, even for unpleasant reasons, even when it verges on discomfort or even fear (a barber could always accidentally cut you, a doctor’s expression could change to one of deep concern, a man could inflict pain on a woman, especially if she’s inexperienced). Berta Isla felt easy and lazy and cared for, and that languor increased as Yanes finished his labors by putting a large plaster on the wound. Once he had done this, he did not immediately remove his hands, but rather rested both of them, still gently, on top of her thighs, like someone laying his hands protectively on someone’s shoulders or in a gesture meaning: “Right, that’s done now.” But thighs are not shoulders, not even the top of the thighs, not at all. Berta did not react, she sat looking at him, her eyes slightly glazed because she was both sleepy and intrigued, her eyes half-closed, trying to feel alarmed and failing, wanly summoning up the blush that usually came to her so easily, like someone waiting and not knowing if she wants those hands to be removed, and even feeling a certain curiosity as to whether they would change position or move elsewhere, for example to the inner thighs, which are still less like shoulders, where the protective gesture can become menacing for the person being touched or even provoke anger, it all depends on the day and on whose thighs and whose hands they are. For a whole minute—a long minute of absolute silence, because neither spoke—Yanes’s hands did not move one millimeter, but stayed where they were, utterly still, neither caressing nor pressing, just there, almost inert; those palms would leave a red mark if they lingered much longer, and it might even be slightly difficult to unstick them from the skin. The banderillero withstood the gaze of those misty eyes fixed on his own wide-set eyes, with their air of clarity and ingenuousness. They themselves gave nothing away, did not anticipate the next step, but exuded only serenity. And yet his face could be read, and Berta knew what that stranger—because he was a stranger—would try sooner or later, she knew this with such certainty that she would have been disappointed had he acted otherwise. She forced herself to think of Tomás Nevinson, whom she loved with such conviction, with such deliberate, stubborn unconditionality; but it seemed to her that that particular evening—or, rather, night—had nothing to do with him nor would it impinge on him in any way, she could see no link between her distant, half-English boyfriend and that situation in an apartment close to the bullring with a young man who doubtless performed or had ambitions to perform there, and who had failed to explain to her what suelto meant. She hadn’t, she thought, recovered either her sense of place or her will; she was still troubled or numbed by the shock of that equine or clandestine adventure, by that encounter with the policeman, or all those things at once. Nothing beats believing you’ve lost your will, feeling you’re at the mercy of the come-and-go of the waves and can abandon yourself and allow yourself to be rocked; even better is believing that you’ve handed your will over to someone else, who must now decide what happens next.

Then, his expression unchanged, and keeping his eyes trained on hers as if to remain alert to the slightest hint of disapproval or rejection so that he could always take a step back, Esteban Yanes, bold and resolute, did, after that minute, go too far. However, as soon as he made this perilous move, Berta laughed out loud—the ready laugh that had won over so many people—perhaps because she found the whole situation hilarious, a situation that would have been unimaginable an hour earlier, and perhaps, too, out of an unexpected feeling of contentment, which is usually aroused by the fulfillment of a desire that is as yet unformulated or confessed and only reveals itself as a desire when it is already being fulfilled. Berta’s laugh triggered the banderillero’s African smile, which seemed to invite immediate confidence and dispel all danger, and which immediately became a laugh too. And so both were laughing at the very moment when Yanes slowly, and without further warning, placed one hand on the charming swelling or charming hillock—namely, the crotch of the knickers he had already observed with such pleasure—and then gently slipped one finger beneath the damp fabric. Tom Nevinson had never gone that far, even at his most daring, his index finger had always stopped at that cloth barrier and never ventured any further, out of respect or dread, or because he was overly conscious of their youth, or out of a wish to postpone the moment, a fear of the irreversible. Berta, however, was made of more interrogative stuff and, noting this more forward approach, she embraced the novelty of it. Of the four items of clothing that remained, she soon lost another three, by which time she was lying on the sofa; she retained only one, which there was no need to remove, and which, besides, she preferred not to take off.


Excerpted from Berta Isla by Javier Marías. Copyright © 2019 by Javier Marías. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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