Our parents were looking for an end-run around human suffering.

We left our worldly home on a foggy early morning, low clouds that smelled like seawater.

“Zendo-by-the-Sea,” said our dad, Ray, trying to catch my sister and me in the rearview mirror. As if the zendo were another one of the turquoise-trimmed motels we stayed in along the way to get there.

There were plenty of rumors about Ivanovich—the Guru, to use an Indian word that worldly neighbors found sheer babble. That He’d skinned a live cat to harvest a psychedelic found only in the shallow feline lymphatic. That He’d been seen in a skullcap like a Jew and in the floppy diaper of a renunciate.

He steered with one tall knee. One long arm around Cleary, our mother.

It was early spring, there was no coastal traffic, but we took a whole week driving down from Halifax. Maybe our parents sensed they would lose their station wagon to the Guru. Tithe was the new language. The Guru consumed everything.

We stayed in seaside fleabags with vending machine breakfasts. One night there was a small traveling circus in our motel. A fellow with too-bright eyes and dyed feathers glued to his jacket was gauging the tires of an emblazoned trailer. “Could the kids see the bear?” Ray always fell for magic.

The showman burst into tears right where Ray confronted him. Just as quickly he seizured into laughter.

Later, on the highway, Ray jerked his bear-colored eyebrows up and down in the rearview mirror. The bear was a dancing beast with chain sores and a trembling lower lip, although the real suffering was endured, he assured us, by the owner who fed it dog food.

My sister and I would not have laughed if we had seen a dancing bear. We would have asked Ray for money to give the showman.

By the time we arrived, the Sanctuary was closed to lay-disciples. “We can’t glom onto Him,” our guide, Kai, informed us.

We heard she had changed her name from Kelly. Ray said there was something Virgin Mary about her. Something All The World Shall Be Taxed. Although she was too skinny to be pregnant. Kelly, Kai, also known as the First Beautiful Wife of the Guru.

In a preceding life, the Sanctuary had been just another old farm, Kai told us. The Guru had received it in tear-down condition, as He received everything, a hillock of shingles between the bay and the blue woods, rocks on the shore gray as gunmetal.

There were plenty of rumors about Ivanovich—the Guru, to use an Indian word that worldly neighbors found sheer babble. That He’d skinned a live cat to harvest a psychedelic found only in the shallow feline lymphatic. That He’d been seen in a skullcap like a Jew and in the floppy diaper of a renunciate.

The farmhouse had a screened porch that faced a kink in the road. Worldly neighbors averted their eyes while secretly hoping they would recognize God when they saw Him. Kai smiled and her big teeth were streaked with metal.

There was a house up the road that new practitioners always rented. In fact, said Ray, it had probably been part of the original farmstead. Been one with the Sanctuary, at one time, he figured. Clapboards the color of dirty snow, porcupine quills like pine needles around the foundation. All that was left of the original farming family was the landlord in town and his cousin, a single, chinless hermit.

Why shouldn’t we have stumbled on God in the form Ivanovich?

It wasn’t that God was distant from people, said Ray; it was that people were all fear and rhetoric. It wasn’t that God was inside now, after centuries of being a dichotomous old bully. It wasn’t that there was no more meat and no more doe-eyed vegetables. What was it?

Ray said the original juxtaposition was God and Human. But you didn’t say God anymore.

What replaced Him?

Some combination of self-improvement and the supernatural.

Ray believed in reincarnation, UFOs, vitamins. He had been to India and seen old men with jackal haunches squatting to shit on the beaches. He had eaten off banana leaves, swallowed fire, and he had taken snuff in the front seat of a Taj Mahal tour bus with the red-eyed driver, red-toothed from betel.

He had bowed to long-horned cows and bicycle rickshaws garlanded with rotting jasmine.

One frigid purple morning he had hiked above Darjeeling to see the white plaster mountainhead of Kanchenjunga.

He had read about meditation and sat cross-legged (he was tall, blond-bearded and loose-jointed. His balls were cold against the floor, though) and watched his breathing roll out like sea surf. He wasn’t sure if his obstacles of thought were unique but he had read that a spiritual teacher could break them down like the mineral deposits of arthritis.

Penny Del Deo, our sponsor, was an American our mother had met through some talks at an alternative bookshop in Halifax. Our mother said Penny had been an actress. That gorgeous laugh? Ray conceded she was pretty, like a little girl in a woman’s body, pert nose and ah-ha eyebrows, but I could see my sister thought Penny Del Deo was the first truly beautiful person our family had ever made a friend of.

Penny was not content to go bobbing through her days on an outside authority—the dominant culture, she said, or for that matter Jimmy Carter—that advised over loudspeakers hidden in trees, “Store-bought bread and Coca-Cola!” She told us it had been two years since she’d eaten from a supermarket.

There was a new language to explain how our parents had spontaneously opened. Penny warned that further opening could feel like fear. Fear was just a farting old guard dog. Guarding fear. Guarding the empty chest in the empty chamber in the empty temple. Emptiness was bandied about as if it were something, Ray offered.

Penny tipped her shapely head and said there was a chance that Ray and Cleary were emerging from their own Kaliyuga, twelve thousand years of subhuman vulgarity. There’s a chance He really is God, said Penny, and what Ray liked was that she made it sound like there was a chance He wasn’t, which validated the Age of Experiment, of Optimism, of Spiritual Sanity, and when Penny and Cleary laughed at him he threw up his hands and laughed with them.

“Anyway,” said Penny. “Wait till you hear Him play.”

The Guru was a classical pianist—a serious person. Ray could fiddle, but not read music.

Cleary had a cross-hatch of lines around her eyes that made her look wise and wistful. She had raisin-colored hair with a few grays. She let my sister pull one out and the pop it made was the death sound.

“Tell your teachers you’re finished with cave painting,” Ray had pronounced one evening. “There go Tom and Laura.”

That was us. He walked his fingers. “Moving up the ladder of spiritual evolution.”

Liking something was not happiness. Not liking something was not unhappiness.
Laura was tall and weedy like Ray, with cold blond hair parted down the left seam of her skull, and I was small for my age, with what Penny Del Deo said were sable eyes, to flatter Cleary.

That high-pitched whine was the miter saw, Kai told us. If you listened closely you could hear a guttural series of burps: the knotty waste being devoured. The Sanctuary had a wood shop, cut its own boards for its own cabins. The cabins had beautiful names, said Kai, which the Guru had given. Lupine and Ozera, Columbine and Kitezh. Morye Odeyal, which was Sea of Blankets.

The Guru’s First Beautiful Wife picked up a rusted blade the shape of an aluminum pie plate. Ray whistled. “Lost any fingers?”

Kai had oval, hooded eyes, a long pale face with painful-looking moles the color of ketchup. “We all have Service,” she said mildly. “I cook for my Beloved and His Inner Circle.”

Ray tried to sound casual. “How long have you been here?”

“As long as my Beloved.”

Ray whistled again.

When the tour was over, Kai walked us back to the sandy lip of the road. There wasn’t a gate or a flag or a sign or anything. “It’s like the Practice,” said Kai. “It just starts. From nowhere, each moment.”

There was a pole barn with a corrugated roof of pewter. The dormered farmhouse had a banging storm door (Wakes up Sleepers, crowed the Guru, Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich), and there was a cluster of single-story sheds with molting paint, dirty as a seagull’s wing but smelling of more exotic fowl. The Guru imported birds like hothouse flowers.

The Guru’s nine wives were Kai, Sita, Larissa, Tamsen, Dovorah, Ronnie, Amina, Heidi, and Piti. The Jersey cows in the pole barn were Masha, Pasha, Sasha, Dasha, and Irinka.
The Guru was good with names.

In the Soviet Union, murmured Kai, He had studied only music and literature.

Spruce trees, scrappy and stiff from salt spray, were culled from the lacy hemlock. Their resinous knots bit the blade and they kicked out violently. The sawdust on the floor of the woodshop was buttery, like cake crumbs. Devotees built picnic tables and benches. The profitability of the woodshop showed that the Guru was a practical man despite His early training, a farmer-yogi, in the mold of the Tibetan teacher Marpa. To cover the remaining expenses of the Sanctuary, there was tithing.

And the zendo, not exactly by-the-sea, but it appeared to float in the pool-like clearing in the forest.

We learned that Penny Del Deo was a real favorite. She had her own cabin on the Sanctuary. Cleary peeked in a window and reported it was a little jewelbox.

Ray and Cleary left before dawn for the zendo. My sister and I were timid at first about getting our own breakfast. Ray went directly from the zendo to his Service. Cleary came home, at once flushed and lightheaded, and washed our bowls out.

Ray reported that there was no embarrassment in meeting the Guru face to face. Not like with a palm reader, he said, the way you were afraid to catch her eye and see the disdain she had for you for falling for her in the first place. Whew, said Ray, eyeing Cleary.

Anyway, this guy doesn’t give a hoot about your fortune, said Ray. Or your future. Here is a guy who really lives in the moment. Here is a guy who blows his breath straight into your breath so your two stinking breaths mingle. Here is a Living God, not just a long story, said Ray, shaking his head, chuckling.

Ray had ordered the kind of textbooks and workbooks for children who were ill or at sea, he said, and the way he saw it we could finish two grades by the end of the summer.

I was ten and my sister was six. Almost too old for baby teeth, but privately I wondered if the love of the Guru was like the tooth fairy, her existence contingent on belief—and adoration.

Two grades—and then what? At first we couldn’t stand the food, the sprouts and shredded carrots with tamari, the turds of dried fruit. The fresh, raw milk tasted that like skin. Kai had warned that the Sanctuary wasn’t always on dairy. The diet called Kalma was best for reincarnation.

“And then what?” Ray echoed.

“Ah,” smiled Ray, answering himself, although he was pledged against rhetoric. “And then your spiritual education.”

“What about the milk?” I persisted.

A devotee wore an old-fashioned farm yoke hung with two buckets. He hauled the milk to the bay in a hundred daily trips. He poured the milk in salt water, which had no effect whatsoever on the ocean.

The true heart of the Sanctuary was the Concert Barn, its back to the blue forest. Inside, the stalls and the hayloft had been knocked out like teeth, and devotees had built a simple, raised platform for the Guru’s grand piano.

Zafus were arranged in rows on the floor, enough for the whole sangha, a community of disciples. There were a few space heaters on frayed extension cords, and kerosene lamps in tin houses corroded by sea air hung on nails. Word was the barn could hold two hundred people, although at the time of our arrival its capacity hadn’t been tested.

Our parents were to sit apart, the men and the women. Ray put an arm around each one of us—my sister and me—as we split off from Cleary.

There was Craig R., the courier, a poet-devotee with two freckle-colored horns of beard and his own canteen of water. You had to hydrate the husk after sitting meditation.

“Happiness is cutting the strings to happiness,” he said, shrugging. Holy clown behavior. He snipped an invisible cord over his bald spot. His lower back seized and he put his narrow hands together and bowed testily, as if to say that he might have a hernia from sitting meditation but the body was the rag of the body. He pointed us to our cushions. He said, “Next time Laura should sit with the ladies.”

A girl with a round, rice-colored face was up on her knees, staring openly at my sister. Her black hair was downy and wild. I stared back and she darted out her snake tongue. When she waved to grownups in the audience they beamed back at her, avid with blessing. I watched her push her fingers into back bends; they touched her arms as if they were boneless.

Incense sifted through the air. You couldn’t help but breathe it.

First came the Guru’s child-sized page-turner, Dorothy. (We would learn that she hated children, like a small grown dog can’t abide a puppy of a larger breed.) Next, a slim young page in a Nehru collar: Adam, the jikki jitsu—meditation leader—who Ray would claim looked like a young Bob Dylan.

My sister changed her legs from lotus to knees to see better. Craig R., on the other side of Ray, pushed his face up to capture radiance.

The lid of the piano was open in half-flight, a crow’s wing, black and lustrous; a bell cleared the air of its last feathers.

And then, there He was, He who was called the Uprooted Center of the Cosmos.
He was huge, as tall as Ray but twice as broad, full of caloric life energy. His huge head was cabbage-shaped, white-tufted, and as a child in the Soviet Union, He had strolled Moika Embankment pulling sweets from thin air for His sweet-toothed mother.

I had heard that He might not be, at present, in His body. His body was not Him, Ray had explained. The laws of the universe were merely props for mortals. Why should the Guru abide by the body?

Nevertheless, He slid His incarnation out along the piano bench. He smoothed His great thighs and closed his small dry eyes as air expanded His belly. He was sat-chit-ananda, Happiness Spreading. He tilted his head back in private rapture.

My face was hot.

Ray spread his buttocks out on the zafu. I closed my ears against the gong and the nasal voice of the meditation leader: Let go of your stuff, you devotees of the Fully Realized. Let go, devotees, of your big muscleman breathing.

    Surrender the body,
    into the deep current,
    surrender the spirit,
    into the great fire
    by His name, God

Then the music started.

It was surprisingly gentle. Pebbles and water, bells and chimes overlapping. It wasn’t hard to listen. The separate sounds made a long cradle. Before I knew what was happening I was inside the cradle. I did not have to act to listen.

I saw my sister close her eyes beside me.

Or inside a boat. It was music that could take you.

Drown your thoughts and render your mind to its own vibration. There were so many notes at once—how did He do it? How did He know so many different voices?

I looked sideways at my sister. I saw that when she closed her eyes she no longer looked like a worldly child, fearful and self-consoling. I saw that His music moved her organs from one side to the other as if they were caught at low tide between giant rocks, her heart in streamers like seaweed.

From our living room windows we could look across the road into the Guru’s holy forest. The woods of our worldly neighbors were like broken ladders, but Kishkindha, the Sanctuary forest, shimmered with self-consciousness, each leaf and needle waiting to be framed by a human eye. There was the swath of a dark green bough, like eyelashes, a Rorschach of blue sky behind it.

“He teases our fear,” said Ray, swollen with admiration. “He calls for sacrifice; calls it human sacrifice.” Ray fell for cleverness as well as magic.

Craig R., the courier, suggested we increase our tithe with the money saved from having the gas turned off in the house we rented. The living room was cold and it smelled like gas, strangely.

“He pries us open and we spill the old ego,” said the courier. He burrowed in his beard to find the nubby pink scar in the middle. He was grinning at our parents. “He’s not going to let you come all the way from O, Canada just to sit on your asses, yeah people?”

Cleary was straight as a flame. When the phone rang now, she wouldn’t answer, as if it would make her more mortal. Less inner life, less Guru.

John Hartshorn, the Guru’s lieutenant, leaned against our cold stove— Kalma was a raw diet. He ran his fingers through his hair, which was thin and charcoal without really having any gray in it. His ears were very neat, well-organized. He wasn’t really listening.

“Gratitude,” said Cleary. “Gratitude for this visit.” It sounded like a Christmas carol. It was April. That was the old language.

“There’s no problem with telephones,” said John Hartshorn. “There’s no renunciation-in-His-name, here, Cleary.”

Our mother looked stricken. John Hartshorn kept pressing. “He’s East-West. He’s Mystic-Musician-Saint-Farmer.”

Ray was nodding as if he were primed for any wonder.

“Listen,” said the courier. “Laura’s invited on the Sanctuary.”

“What?” Ray was already laughing incredulously. “Laura MacLaura?”

Ray MacFarland, over-grinning, chewing up his own scenery. My sister’s mouth turned down when she was shy, as if with old fashioned hardship. Being tall for her age had never endeared her to the type of grownups who “understood” children.

“Jesus, Ray,” said Hartshorn, pushing off the stove impatiently.

It was the black-haired girl from the Concert Barn, Una, who summoned my sister. Her mother was Kai, the First Beautiful. Her father was a Japanese Roshi who lived in Kyoto, a place where the clouds swept up from two sides of the sky to make a cloud pagoda. No wonder Una looked like a little Buddha from the fifth century, Ray said, planted in the raked gravel garden by the zendo.

“A half-God,” said Ray, delighted.

It was unseasonably warm for April, and papery leaves skittered and circled inside the farmyard. My sister looked strange walking alone, as if the whole rest of the world were sleeping. But the sun shone brightly, even brighter on the Sanctuary, and my sister felt its warmth in her core instead of outside her. In a Children’s Talk on cassette tape we had listened to in Halifax, the Guru had already predicted and described this sensation. Happiness Spreading, as far as the inner eye could see, leveling like water. When she closed her eyes my sister saw light—black light, holographic schisms, Ray called them. Surrender to your cones and rods, laughed Ray. He had painstakingly explained optics.

My sister heard the screech from the wood shop, and something brushed her body like a walking bush. She opened her eyes. A peacock.

“It has its third eye on its tail,” remarked the Roshi’s daughter. My sister started. How long had Una been there? As if to mock the bird, she was fanning herself with a spray of peacock feathers.

They kicked off their shoes in the farmhouse entry. The half-mortal had just a regular voice, a little bit slangy.

My sister paired her shoes neatly and inconspicuously beside Una’s: zoris, even though they looked like drugstore flip-flops. It was dark in the entry and it smelled meaty like feet. My sister thought she heard something cooing in a corner.

Una pointed a broom at a lumpy gray bird that might have been laying. The bird was not intimidated. It blinked repetitively, and, it seemed to my sister, without feeling.

“That’s a lyrebird,” Una said when she’d pried it out of its corner. “He hatched it.”

Incense hung as heavy as pollen. My sister dropped to her knees, then her belly, at the Guru’s altar. She let her forehead rest on the dull pine floorboards for three full breath cycles.

When she rose her blood felt solid, her eyes were starbursts, and when she could see again, she had a headache. “Don’t stay down so long,” Una chided.

As she backed away from the throne, my sister saw Una take a small cellophane package.

Outside, Una stopped beneath a tall, sparse pine tree, more like a flagpole than an evergreen. It had bare spikes for branches, a crest of dark green at the very top like one of the top hat roosters that jerked chestily about the farmyard. “Here’s where His parrot Gautama proved it had nine lives,” said Una. “Even though it’s only cats that are supposed to. Have you ever seen parrots climb? They use their teeth.” Una bared hers to show my sister. “Nine times.” She reached her arms out. “His wings didn’t open.” Her eyes were on my sister.

Una uncrinkled the package. Four bulby chocolates. She placed three of the candies in the veiny roots at the base of the pine tree. She gave the fourth one to my sister.

“There’s a chance I’m a Lama,” she said. “Reincarnated.”

My sister nodded.

“Lamas have to die, too,” said Una.

In Tibet or Mongolia. In Colorado or California. There was a saint (Ray and Cleary said sri, which sounded less Western) who wandered around India pulling candy from the atmosphere. Ray had been to Goa, tasted the candy, but that didn’t make him a Roshi. In India, candy was called milk sweets.

Kai walked like a skeleton, her hips and knees wobbling in their ball-and-sockets. Her small head in its crocheted skullcap looked like a beanbag. Una and Kai shared a bedroom along a pitching upstairs hallway in the farmhouse. Outside their bedroom door sat Monju Bosatu, guardian of wisdom. There was another gargoyle like that at the zendo’s entrance. The little bedroom had low, slanted ceilings, and the dormer window faced the curve in the road, where cars were forced to slow whether or not they were curious about Buddhists.

There was a cardboard box under a heat lamp in the corner. Una led my sister over and pointed: a guinea chick, a rare duckling, a crane with purplish eyelids, fragile as a bubble of blood.

“Don’t breathe on them,” said Una.

Una leaned over the squiggly babies in their sweet-smelling wood shavings. “He cuts their wings with fingernail scissors.” She reached into the box and put the pad of her longest finger on each bird’s head and in turn each baby bird squeezed down like a little sponge cake and then rose back up again.

Now my sister could smell something fatty, like French fries, beneath the smell of wood shavings. She took a few steps backward. Outside the glowing circle of the heat lamp, the bedroom was freezing. Una pinched the tiny crane out of the box and palmed it underneath the heat lamp. Her breathing was loud and rapid.

Almost immediately there was another smell, faint at first, like burning hair, only my sister knew it was bird skin as delicate as the flying dust on a butterfly. Una swooped the bird around and around the bedroom. It looked as small and pink as a worm in her hand. Finally she landed it on the bed, suddenly less an unmade futon than a stormy Arctic.

The sun was a spike through the dormer window. The crane vibrated with a force that could not possibly have come from its own scrap of a body. Una stood back and pointed triumphantly. “That’s the Life Force.”

My sister ran down the back stairs, past the farmhouse kitchen, past the screened porch which faced the road and where sanghists were gathered in heavy sweaters and blankets, discussing a parable or a precept, hands wrapping stoneware. Already my sister knew it was forbidden to discuss koans.

What was in her pocket? She remembered the chocolate stolen from the Guru’s altar. It was fudgy now, and it would make a brown stain as if she’d had an accident. She ran through the Sanctuary, jumping scabs of ice, slicks of bird poop. Despite the warmth there was still snow on the ground like pumice stone, gray and porous. If she looked up she would get tinsel in her eyes. She started down one of the paths that wound inland from the Concert Barn into the hemlock forest. The Teachings said the whole world was a tapestry woven in thread that could fit through the eye of an atom. And just now, the Guru must have been coming from the zendo, because He was standing directly in her path, the Living God, the Live Wire, the Lamb, the Lion, tearing the lively meat, full of the knowledge of human suffering.

Even His shock of hoary hair was enlightened. His nose was the same purple as the crane’s eyelids. His eyes were gray and light shone through them when He locked your gaze—drew your stuff to the surface, as Ray described it.

She managed to bow before she crumpled. Her knees were wet, and the earth smelled tonic, like sap, and water. She could feel Him watching her. Her back was getting warmer and warmer as if under a heat lamp. She had the sense she would cave inside, dissolve into His presence.

Yes, she loved Him. He demanded love, that’s what Ray said.

She had no doubt that He knew already. Not so much that He could read her mind, although it was possible, but that He could read the universe with its sudden absence of a hatchling crane with microscopic nodules where mauve-ish pinfeathers might have come in a week later.

What would He do? He would shout in someone’s face, “Karma, dharma, farm-a!”

Nonsense, perfect sense. Someone asked Him about dogma and He said, “Cat-ma! God’s little pet name, eh people? Are you God’s little pets, people?”

There was nothing benevolent about Him. Now, up close, He smelled like wood smoke from the faulty stove in the zendo. Smash the hall of mirrors, my sister had heard Ray repeat. Torch the theater. He would kick the wandering fowl when He was cross—that same lyrebird crouching in the farmhouse entry, for instance, had performed on mounded earth behind the silver fan of its own tail feathers until the Guru, in a rage, charged it, all flushed neck and shoulders.

Tall for a girl, where were my sister’s pinfeathers?

But when she finally looked up, He was beaming down upon her. A smile of such brilliance, such overwhelming love, that she forgot her fear and she was transported to the shores of light that were the inside of the Guru’s great cranium. She was, at once, resting, and very, very active. She felt herself shiver as she basked in the source of all Happiness.

She didn’t know how long she lay there.

The Guru had said famously that time was only a prism. Then He corrected Himself and said prison. Devotees understood He was greater than time, and they understood greatness.

All at once my sister was aware of a poking in the soft spots of her ribcage. She stiffened, although it didn’t hurt, exactly. It didn’t tickle. The Guru was wiggling his toes around her barrel. It was funny but it didn’t tickle. He had slipped one foot out of its zori. A small foot for such a big man. When He got old, very old—did a Guru?—He would totter.

The earth smelled like an old porcupine. She had a picture: He was a flannel rag on a stick pushed down to clean inside a recorder. She had a toy one, in Halifax; it was made of blond wood and it stunk of spit if she didn’t clean it.

He laughed, the soft flannel scrubbed her.

From the cassette tape: All you have to do is open, Dear Ones! All you have to do is receive Me, people!

His love was real. Wood. Spit. His love called forth her love—had she ever loved before this? She saw a million pale maggots that could turn a fallen tree trunk into jelly. She felt love turn death to jelly. He flexed His toes and grunted as He shoved her. She was love and she was spirit. Did He want to roll her over?

Then He kicked hard, with the blunt head of his heel, as if He were suddenly impatient. He wouldn’t break His short toes on her.

Her body tingled all over, and the oatmeal of wet dirt was dense in her passages. She felt loose, her blood was sloshing. Her belly was wet—from the inside?

Suddenly she had the incontrovertible urge to start shaking.

The Guru stopped kicking. He kept his foot pressed into the side of her ribs and she vibrated.

He must have felt her kundalini.

He must have felt her shaking travel up His leg bone.

When my sister turned over He was gone and she looked up through the wings of fir trees to a pale sky with no ceiling. She couldn’t tell where the sky started. She curled onto her side. Of course the sky didn’t start somewhere, out of nowhere, there wasn’t a line of blue or gray as if the sky were another, separate heaven. As if the sky were the sea. She could smell the fingery salt rivers, she had seen the insolent tough gulls drop blue mussels on the blacktop.

She could still smell burning feathers.

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