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For Him I Sing

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For him I sing,
(As some perennial tree, out of its roots, the present on the past:)
With time and space I him dilate—and fuse the immortal laws,
To make himself, by them, the law unto himself.

- Walt Whitman, 'For Him I Sing'

 

That night there was a new moon, and the low clouds that seemed perpetually to suffocate Edinburgh had drawn back to reveal a late-summer sky filled to its depths with stars. Siegfried had not thought the sky could seem so deep. During the day the farthest point visible was the sun, and when one looked at the sun one looked inwards, to the center of the solar system. Now that the sun had set, now that he stood on the roof of the Royal Observatory, Siegfried’s vision turned outwards and he saw, beyond the faint glow of Edinburgh at midnight, the heavens. Starlight coloured the dark sky blue; the Milky Way was a ragged reddish scar stretching across the sky’s old face.

Beside him Owen and the Royal Astronomer, who had invited them up to see a meteor shower, were discussing the constellations. The Royal Astronomer was pointing out Hercules, who seemed from their perspective to be lying on his side, and Owen was attempting earnestly to prove that he had studied his myths and knew very well about Hercules killing his family and stealing some apples and so on. He spoke with much the same air as he did when quoting Shelley’s ‘Defence of Poetry’ at length. Siegfried, embarrassed, rested his elbows on the stone balustrade which encircled the roof and looked out.

He was thinking, half-consciously, of a passage from one of his own poems: ‘I know that he is lost among the stars....’ When he wrote it he was selfish with grief, and thought only of how his Tommy was lost to him, a star among stars, impossible to find and pluck down. Faced with the sight of the sky, Siegfried began to wonder whether Tommy didn’t find himself lost, helplessly traversing the long dark furrows between the lights. If Siegfried had not refused to fight, it was likely he would be beside Tommy now, perhaps as a guide or perhaps as a fellow wanderer.

‘Look—!’ cried Owen.

‘What’s that?’ said Siegfried, only half-remembering what they had come for.

In his upper periphery Siegfried caught a burst of light, diamond-shaped, that disappeared so quickly he was bewildered at its being gone. The Royal Astronomer had explained to them, in layman’s terms, the material facts of meteors: a comet swung by the sun and scattered dust that burnt away upon meeting earth’s atmosphere. Yet any arc of light in the night sky seemed to Siegfried a rocket or a star shell, lifting up from behind the German line and burning brightly, hanging in the sky and for a moment illuminating the jagged lines of barbed wire, the indefinite slumps and slouches of wet soft soil, the helmets of his men. He expected to hear the patter-patter of machine guns aimed at a raiding party.

Siegfried heard only the whistle of the dry breeze blowing between the two towers. Beyond that, Owen and the astronomer burbled appreciatively. To Owen, Siegfried knew, this was not a respite from Craiglockhart but an adjunct to it, a feature of Captain Brock’s ergotherapy: Owen was trying desperately to prove he possessed a mind whole and sound, and a body capable of living among others. A neurasthenic would look at a meteor and think of star shells, and cringe in anticipation of hearing machine guns; a good soldier would— What would a good soldier do? A good soldier would be in the raiding party.

Another meteor passed overhead, a thin white arc that disappeared just before it slipped below the Edinburgh skyline. ‘And shall return no more but in their light,’ thought Siegfried, then corrected himself: ‘And may return no more….’ There was no reason why any dead man, having been loosed from the world, should wish to return. Siegfried was among the living; or, if one considered the men at Craiglockhart, the half-living, the hoping-to-live-again. He hadn’t Tommy, but he’d the little man who had knocked on his door, asking him to inscribe half a dozen copies of The Old Huntsman; the little poet who, turning away from the war as he had seen it, wrote of ‘art’s fairest buds on antique stem’ and broad-limbed Greek youths wrestling. As Siegfried searched his memory for the lines of Owen’s poems he had liked, another meteor fell, and another.

‘Sing me at midnight with your murmurous heart!’ Yes, that was what it was. ‘Let youth’s immortal-moaning chord be heard….’ By the starlight Siegfried looked at Owen’s face, tilted up to the sky.

 


 

At dawn, the meteors began to fade into the sunlight. Siegfried bade farewell to the astronomer and led Owen down the hill upon which the observatory was perched. Craiglockhart was about an hour’s walk from the observatory; they might have waited for the first buses to run, but an hour spent trudging along country roads was an hour they were not nerve cases in hospital.

‘I was thinking of one of your poems,’ Siegfried at last ventured. He was dumb with a lack of sleep; he had scarcely slept the night before, or the night before. Looking up at the red sunrise made him dizzy. ‘The one I particularly liked.’

‘I don’t know which one you mean,’ said Owen, who undoubtedly worried about appearing immodest before his idol.

‘Yes, you do,’ said Siegfried severely. ‘You went as red as a beetroot while I was praising it; you won’t have forgotten that. It was about singing. In function, rather the inverse of Whitman saying, “For him I sing, with time and space I him dilate”.’

‘You mean “Song of Songs”! It went, er, “Sing me at morn,” and so on. Yes, what were you thinking?’

‘Oh, did I say—?  Mm, I suppose I had been thinking. I’ll have to remember what it was. Ah yes: I suppose you wrote it as a sort of love song, didn’t you? Song of Songs, the locked garden and all that.’

Though it was difficult to tell in the pink light, a flush seemed to appear in Owen’s freckled cheeks. When he spoke, Siegfried realised with a pang that the neurasthenic stammer asserted itself: ‘A so-so-so-sort of love song,’ Owen said. ‘In a suh-suh-spiritual sense. I mean that I think of love as so-something that must live in everything else. That does live in everything else, even if the love s-seems to its detractors merely frivolous, or fleshly, or immoral. If the feeling itself is pure and true then it will find itself expressed. Su-sung, as it were.’

‘The poem seems more pertinent now as an expression of mourning, doesn’t it? An exhortation by a dead man to remember him. ‘Sing me’— Oh, don’t publish an open letter in the Daily Mail or start a charity subscription, none of that, certainly; but sing me with your laugh or your sigh, that’ll do. It’s the halfway mark between “If I should die, think only this of me” and “Say only this: they are dead”.’

‘You say that as if there can’t be love where there’s grief,’ said Owen. ‘As if once someone dies you can’t love them really, you can only mourn them.’

Resolving to put aside for the moment all talk of love (perhaps if they’d whiskey in them), Siegfried said, ‘You know you almost had it with that other poem you showed me. “Let’s die home, ferry across the Channel!” But it all resolved into an embarrassment: “our own mothers’ tears shall heal us whole”? Is that really what you think? Have you seen anyone at all healed whole, let alone by his mother’s tears? Commemoration is one thing; resurrection is quite another.’

Together they were turning onto the lane which wound its way up to the hospital. Trees of various species crowded in on the paved lane; the branches of vine-choked elms drooped over the bright red berries of the rowans. Slowly the dour silhouette of the hospital became visible over the tops of the trees.

‘If we are made immortal it is only by the efforts of the living,’ said Owen. ‘If we aren’t remembered we haven’t got anything. But we are remembered; the mourners make sure of that, even if they aren’t lighting candles. Besides that, I’ll write “Song of Songs” again, and that will be something—a candle of a sort.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ said Siegfried, stepping lightly across the gravel drive that circled the hospital. ‘If we’re too noisy the nurses will tell on us, and we’ll be sent off on some assignment or other. Goodnight, Owen. I’ll see you at breakfast.’

Standing before the door to the hall, looking over his shoulder, Owen seemed to be waiting for Siegfried’s benediction. They were bound together now, as poets and as friends; when Siegfried wrote about the dead and the mad and the mutilated, he would write knowing that Owen could well be among them someday. Yet Siegfried could find in himself no space for the enormity of that feeling. He wanted, he found, to kiss Owen, on the forehead or the lips; but that would not be blessing him.

 


 

In the hour of sleep Siegfried stole between sneaking up to his room and going down to breakfast, he dreamt that he woke, dressed himself, and went up the hill again to the observatory. Waiting for him there on the roof in the high morning sunlight was his Tommy, with a clean uniform and his haystack hair combed away from his sunburnt face. He was only on a week’s leave, he told Siegfried, and could not stay long because he had got to make his way to Pontarddulais to see his parents. He had taken the journey up to Edinburgh because he had wanted to show his Kangar that he was all right.

‘I’d have liked to see the meteors, too,’ said Tommy, squinting up at the sun, ‘but I think I’ve missed them. Sorry to have made you walk all this way.’

‘I’ll walk to Wales with you if you like,’ said Siegfried. ‘Then I shall really be a deserter. Lady Ottoline and Bertrand Russell will finally approve of my anti-war efforts.’

There was no real resolution: the dream became thinner, then vanished altogether, replaced by an awareness that his roommate the theosophist had awakened and was washing his face at the basin. He was mumbling something faintly lyrical as he prepared his razor for shaving, and as Siegfried regained consciousness he recognised the speech: ‘Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.’

‘Shakespeare,’ said the theosophist, as if by speaking that name he excluded almost all others, ‘was a poet.’

‘Oh, a poet, no doubt,’ said Siegfried, yawning, placing his bare feet on the cool hardwood floor. ‘Less of a soldier.’

 


 

Autumn came—for Siegfried and Owen, if not for however many thousands of others. The elms went yellow and the berries dropped off the rowan trees. Siegfried learnt from the quartermaster of his battalion that one of the men in his company had lost an arm and another had had a breakdown. The quartermaster had ended his letter by saying that ‘we shall all be mad or dead presently’, and it took a great deal of effort for Siegfried to respond without telling him it was better to be dead.

For at Craiglockhart there was the sense that in going mad the patients had damned themselves; they had fallen too low to be allowed to die at the front. All that was left to them now was cultivating potatoes in garden allotments and teaching Scottish schoolboys first-aid and drills. Owen, for his part, was editing a hospital literary magazine comprised largely of interminable serialised stories and advertisments for Hardy Bros. fishing rods (in one issue there was a poem which rhymed ‘laugh’ with ‘quaff’). Siegfried observed that the work seemed fascinating to Owen, whose experience with the literary world had up until now consisted solely of a friendship with a flatulent country cousin who wrote in the manner of Tennyson. Selfishly (he felt he had some right to be selfish in this matter) Siegfried wished Owen would give it up: a young poet like Owen oughtn’t to have done anything but turn out his own volumes of scribbles.

But Owen did write—perhaps, Siegfried thought, by night, as he put off till the last moment the terrible fact of sleeping. As they sat together one chilly afternoon in the hospital’s library, Owen presented Sassoon with a pile of papers bearing the crossings-out and appendations that evidenced poetry.

‘Will you tell me what you think of them?’ asked Owen. He was so clearly anxious to become ‘one of the ones’ that Siegfried was frightened of laying eyes on the poems, in case they should be bad and he should have to let his little friend down.

Owen deserved greater faith than that. If it were not for the Keatsian echoes Siegfried should hardly have believed that the poems he read that afternoon came from the same pen as the boyish musings on Art and Beauty he had been shown in August. The difference, of course, was that Owen was writing about the war. He was fighting against the impulse to view his own experience in the rhetoricians’ terms; he was wresting language out of the hands of the home front. Yet Siegfried felt, reading the poems, that at at his heart Owen wanted nothing more than to build with his own hands a tomb for those he had lost.

‘An anthem,’ said Siegfried lightly, stopping a moment to light his pipe. When the smoke filled his nose and mouth he felt he could go on. ‘To dead youth. Presumably an anthem more in the religious sense than then national. Well, let’s see what we have here. “What passing-bells for you who die in herds?” Yes, of course, the guns…. It’s obvious to any soldier; perhaps less so to their mothers. Hm-mm. “These are our farewells.” Whose precisely, I wonder.’

‘Anyone who mourns,’ answered Owen. ‘By the end of the poem it’s everyone: boys and girls and comrades.’

‘If that’s what you mean to say, you’ve written it incorrectly,’ said Siegfried. He worried with his teeth at the stem of his pipe. ‘At the end of the stanza the only “farewells” you could possibly be referring to are the “rifles’ rattled words” and so on. “Our farewells” are the shells we—I mean soldiers—send over to the other side. Perhaps the girls provide the palls and the boys the holy lights, but the farewells themselves are left to the combatants. I don’t mean that it’s wrong to say so, mind you. Rather the opposite.’

‘But that isn’t what I want to s-say,’ protested Owen. ‘I want to— I want to s-say that we all have a hand in it. The first s-stanza is merely the question, or the problem: there ought to be passing-bells for the ones who die, and there are none. What then? Well, there is the glimmer in a boy’s eyes when he begins to weep.’

‘Very well then,’ said Siegfried, and, taking Owen’s pen, crossed out “these are our farewells”. ‘It’s not at all a bad poem, you know. It’s “Let’s die home, ferry across the channel” written by a man who has actually seen someone die, and been in danger of dying himself. With a few revisions it might be publishable.’

‘You don’t believe in what it’s s-saying,’ said Owen. He had the composure and equilibrium of a real pacifist, someone who was used to being spat on and carrying on speaking anyway. ‘You think that the only one who can really mourn a soldier is the man who has actually s-s-seen him die. But I think it’s cruel to say that only someone who’s been in France can grieve the dead; that’s only taking prayers away from them.’

‘Frankly,’ said Siegfried, ‘I don’t believe the dead mind what we do about them. They know: but I think they’re rather beyond possessing a strong opinion on the matter. They’ve left it up to us to bother about.’

‘Well, yes, that’s just what I mean,’ said Owen, with the air of putting a definitive end to the disagreement. ‘They’ve left it up to us.’

Somehow Siegfried, who made it a point not to look anyone but his superiors in the eye, found himself observing the tremors of feeling in Owen’s face. There was a line between his soft brows, wrinkles at the corners of his heavily-hooded eyes; his lips were pulled tight in the typical manner of a junior officer who was used to suppressing his worries. Months in hospital had made his skin pale, and the delicate webbing of veins beneath his skin’s surface was visible along his temples and his cheekbones.

In terms of looks he was not extraordinary: he possessed as much beauty as could be expected of a young man who in the space of three years had gone from the chateaux of Bordeaux to a shell-hole piled with the corpses of men he had loved. All the same Siegfried found himself bound to look. It was as if the curve of Owen’s nose or the slope of his jaw could show Siegfried how to pity.

 


 

The conversation vanished from Siegfried’s conscious mind not long after it ended: after leaving the library he went out on the lawn to practise using a mashie to hit a ball out of a poor lie, whereupon he thought only about the position of his body as it related to the club and the ball. Owen was absent from dinner, but Siegfried would not have eaten with him anyway; he ate that evening with Rivers, so as to solicit the doctor’s advice on golf. It was at the dreadful hour, then, when the lights were out and the theosophist was asleep and snuffling beside him, that Siegfried began to think seriously about Owen’s poem. What candles, thought Siegfried, what candles, what candles.

In the daylight it had seemed laughable that Tommy, dead, should wish for Siegfried to hold a candle to speed him on. No tears or tenderness of Siegfried’s could serve as consolation to a boy who had been shot in the throat at the age of twenty; for that matter neither could candles or flowers. The whole machinery of mourning was blasted apart by the fact of death: it was like a gun which, having grown too hot, backfired. Yet Siegfried—turning now onto his stomach, now onto his back; rising to smoke a cigarette, climbing into bed again—began to wish it was only a matter of asking Tommy what to do. Ought Siegfried weep for him? Ought Siegfried sing him? When Siegfried laughed or spoke or sighed he felt he was only laughing or speaking or sighing.

 


 

In mid-October, at the end of a week of rain that had kept the patients indoors, Siegfried dreamt of Tommy for the first time since the dream about meeting him on the roof of the observatory.

At first it was the usual dream, indistinguishable from dozens of others Siegfried had had at Craiglockhart: he was at the front again, trapped up the line with no relief. In these dreams it was always night, and often raining. Despite the rain their section of the line was being shelled; the rockets sent up to illuminate the front lines streaked damply overhead, drawing arcs of red light. The walls of the trenches were crumbling, the sandbags slouching; the duckboards were covered by water that sloshed about one’s ankles as one walked.

‘Damn them,’ Siegfried was saying, ‘damn “B” Company. I hope to God they’ve been shelled off the face of the earth; that’s the only possible explanation I can give for their failure to relieve us as scheduled.’

One of his young Welshmen said, ‘Surely you don’t wish “B” Company were shelled off the face of the earth, Captain Sassoon. I’ve got friends in “B” Company.’

‘No, Evans, I don’t, really. —Evans, Morgan, if you’re standing about, reinforce the parapet there: otherwise a strong breeze comes and we’ll have a cave-in. Get to it.’

‘We can’t,’ said Evans, ‘Lieutenant Thomas is in there.’

None of his young Welshmen were liars. In a hole in the parapet, much like the sort of holes in which men would stow away their kit bags or camp stoves, something that had once been a young man was curled tight into itself, like an infant. The skeletal hands clasped tight about the tattered tunic; tufts of fair hair clung still to the skull. It was all wrong, of course: Tommy was buried in a makeshift British cemetery near the dressing station where he had died. Siegfried felt the queer sensation of living a history he had already lived differently. The second history began to blot out the first, so that Tommy was no longer buried but tumbling wetly, limply, into the puddles on the floor of the trench. Though it made him retch, Siegfried clung to his boy.

Siegfried woke to darkness and the rain. The jolly old rain! he thought. His little hospital room with its bare walls and its scuffed furniture seemed as foreign to him as England did when he returned from his first tour of the trenches. He was reduced to the state of a child who, knowing nothing, seeks only comfort.

Nothing that had ever offered him comfort could comfort him now, not even the written word: oh, he’d letters from his mother and Graves and Lady Ottoline, he’d Vanity Fair and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, he’d the drafts of poems Owen had asked him to look at the night before, and none of it absolved him from his grief. Siegfried thought of the final lines of a poem Owen had attempted in the ‘Sassoon’ style: ‘’E’s wounded, killed, and pris’ner, all the lot— / The ruddy lot all rolled in one. Jim's mad.’

 


 

The next night the stars were out again, and the moon was new: a full lunar cycle had passed since the night at the observatory. The air had a reverent stillness unusual for autumn; the leaves left on the trees did not even faintly stir. Siegfried could not help thinking that it was the sort of night for a wire-cutting party. If he were in the forward trench he could clamber out and creep all the way up to the enemy line; perhaps if he then tossed a few bombs down he could repeat the performance that in the summer of ‘16 had nearly got him recommended for the D.S.O. But he was not in the forward trench, he was not even in France. He was at Craiglockhart, and could do very little during a new moon but look at the stars.

‘Which one is Hercules, again?’ asked Siegfried.

He and Owen were lying in the grass on the slope that led downwards from the back of the hospital; their greatcoats were flung open, fanning out beneath them, and their hats lay abandoned by their sides. They were about half a foot apart, but Siegfried thought he could feel the presence of Owen’s body beside him, vital and prepossessing, indubitably the body of a living man.

It was nearly midnight: curfew at Craiglockhart was ten o’clock. Siegfried and Owen both knew, however, that if they went in they would have no choice but to go up to their dark rooms and lie in bed, and then the dreams would come. If not the dreams, then the waking memories, and those were equally as vicious.

‘Up there,’ said Owen, pointing. ‘He’s on his side, still. Those four stars that make a sort of square are his body. Then you see his legs bent, slightly, and his arm holding up the club.’

The sky looked like a mass of stars. If Siegfried saw any pattern in them, it was a pattern of his own imagining. He said, ‘I don’t see it. I see Pegasus: he’s upside-down, too.’

Fiercely, as if it took him great courage, Owen took hold of Siegfried’s hand and guided it to point towards Hercules. Siegfried supposed he ought to look for the constellation, but could think of nothing but the warmth of Owen’s slim, worn hand on his own. He could not recall being touched so tenderly by any man, let alone any man whom he had loved. Always with Tommy it was Siegfried who touched, who placed his gloved hand on Tommy’s back or his shoulder; Tommy was the one who accepted love, Siegfried the one who gave it. Owen seemed somehow to have seen Siegfried before he saw himself, and to have known that this alone would give Siegfried some measure of comfort; a dram of touch, like a swallow of whiskey, to strengthen him against the night.

‘Don’t you see it now?’ asked Owen. Sensing that Siegfried did not, he lowered their hands together; he did not, however, let Siegfried loose. The tips of his fingers pressed against the pulse in Siegfried’s wrist. Sheepishly: ‘I suppose there’s a reason I’m a poet, and not the Royal Astronomer.’

‘You wrote a poem about Hercules,’ said Siegfried. ‘It was one of the ones you’ve written since you’ve been here, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, an early one, only a fragment. It was about Heracles fighting Antaeus. “So neck to neck, and obstinate knee to knee,” I think it began. Really I wrote it because of a picture in Brock’s office, a sort of neoclassical etching of that scene. I was pleased by it for my own reasons, you see, but to Brock it was simply allegory: the nerve cases are Heracles and our war neuroses are Antaeus. Brock told me we mustn’t attempt to throw off our troubles by force.’

‘But we can hold them so tightly to us that we suffocate them?’ said Siegfried sceptically.

‘We must hold them tightly, anyway,’ Owen said, laughing.

Yet it wasn’t so different from what Rivers told Siegfried. Rivers said one mustn’t think of one’s grief only in dreams, one must face it outright, awake, and take it into oneself as easily as one might a kindness. One did not kill one’s sorrows, exactly; one allowed one’s sorrows to live inside of one, like a child forever unborn.

Perhaps, thought Siegfried idly, the Greeks would have balked at their stories being used for the purpose of rehabilitating neurasthenics. Perhaps not: the men at Craiglockhart were not being prepared to live but to return to duty. If they did not die they would at least fight. What if Siegfried were to go, and fight again? What if he were to die? He thought he should like to. It would mean so much more than his living. Siegfried would make the sacrifice; Owen would sing the songs.

By the faint yellow light from the windows of the hospital, Siegfried saw that Owen’s irises had gone still: he was looking beyond the stars, into a world which was invisible to Siegfried. His eyes seemed bright, and Siegfried saw, upon drawing closer, that the brightness was tears, caught between the lashes yet not spilling onto the cheek.

‘Oh lord, stop that, Owen,’ said Siegfried, swiping his thumb roughly across Owen’s eyes to blot away the tears. He worried the darkness would not conceal the fact that his face had become a rictus of social terror. ‘We’re meant to be getting the better of our neuroses. If you’d like to weep you might as well go in and go to bed.’

‘No, no,’ said Owen, seizing Siegfried’s wrist to still his hand, ‘it’s not that: I’m very pleased. Only I would be more pleased—’

Vaguely Siegfried wondered why it was that Owen’s palm was cupping the back of his neck. The thought had not fully resolved itself before Owen’s mouth was on Siegfried’s, making the sorts of motions which Siegfried supposed constituted a kiss. So they were both silenced, and were, for the moment, better off for being so: they held each other, simply, as soldiers did when sleeping in the line. Once Siegfried had remembered himself he took hold of Owen’s jaw and kissed him with a ferocity that belonged to the Siegfried who had fought in France; who had taken a German trench single-handedly, and afterwards sat down to read Keats.

Who, then, was the Owen whom Siegfried was kissing? There must have been a dozen Owens before that one: the railway clerk’s son, the evangelical, the schoolmaster, the decadent, the private in the Artist’s Rifles, the newly-commissioned subaltern. Siegfried was kissing all those; and he was kissing Tommy, who had not been kissed before he died, and lived, now, in the breath of any man whom Siegfried loved. Siegfried was—in his breath or in his sigh, if not with his voice or his sorry words—singing (as some perennial tree, out of its roots, the present on the past). From over the hill on which they lay, Siegfried thought he heard a rejoinder, sung unevenly by the dozens of young Tommies he had seen dead: ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, / And smile, smile, smile’.

 


 

Before waking fully, Siegfried heard the vociferous cheep-cheep-cheep of crested tits and finches, then the song of a thrush, perfectly clear in the cool dawn. He remembered waking one morning in billets he was sharing with Tommy, and going out for a walk before breakfast; that morning he had heard a thrush for the first time since he had been in France. Now he woke to find Owen beside him, curled on his side on top of his greatcoat, his dark hair dusted by the morning dew and his arms crossed over his chest, as if in a measure of protection.

Owen looked, thought Siegfried, like a man who had died, and in death let himself loose from his cares. His brow was smooth; his mouth was tender and slightly open. Siegfried had learnt to hate seeing men’s faces so peaceful. ‘You are too young…,’ thought Siegfried, and shook Owen till he woke, groaning, rubbing his eyes.