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Alvydas Šlepikas (b. 1966) is a writer who lives in Vilnius. Šlepikas writes prose, poetry, and plays. His most known work is the novel Mano vardas – Marytė, which has been translated into more than ten languages. Alvydas Šlepikas is the recipient of various foreign and national literary prizes, most notably the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. Last year A. Šlepikas published a collection of short stories titled Namas anapus upės: įvairių laikų istorijos, which was listed by the Intitute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore among the Most Creative Books of 2023 and the Top Five Best Books of 2023.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Henrikas Natalevičius, House. 2008, oil, canvas, 53.5 x 82.5 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

 

 

From the collection of short stories The House on the Other Side of the River

 

 

THE HOUSE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER

The two-storey red brick house stood in a valley by a small, fast-flowing stream, not far from the water, looking neglected and dead. One might surmise that it had at some time been a water mill because of a ditch with no other discernible purpose had been dug running from the stream in the direction of the building, the ditch now overgrown with willows. Around the house, there was a thick covering of grass and tall alder trees, to the left, on the north side, one could make out an abandoned orchard, allowed to grow wild and covered with bushes: there were old apple trees with black, often dry branches, their huge bony fingers seeming to reach in vain up into the void, afraid of sinking into the earth, of being swallowed up by the wild, young vegetation, but not finding anything to cling onto.

Liepa and Vilkas[1] lay hidden in the dense vegetation on top of the slope on the other side of the stream and were watching the house. They had been lying there for a long time, probably a whole excruciatingly long hour had already passed. In fact, it was only Liepa following what was happening in the house because Vilkas had been badly wounded in his thigh. He lay on his side, grinding his teeth trying to keep from groaning. At one point, Liepa seemed to see shadows, figures in the windows of the seemingly abandoned house, and so the young woman couldn’t be sure if the house was really empty or a trap was waiting for them. You couldn’t trust anyone now, there were cowards and traitors everywhere, and Liepa wanted to live, and that is why she had to act carefully, prudently, and not take any senseless risks. It was really bad luck that they were being forced to act quickly because of Vilkas’s wound, which had to be rebandaged. He needed to be hidden in a place where he could lie safely and then for Liepa to go and find him help.

They had been ambushed in the early morning. Liepa saw Vėjas[2] die on the spot, instantly – a bullet or a fragment of a grenade took half his head off, and the leader of their group fell into a roadside ditch. The young woman was lucky, she jumped out of the cart, fell to the side, and starting to shoot back blindly – unable to see what she was shooting at or where the ttackers were, and only more or less sensing the direction she should be going in, dove into the field of rye next to the road, bent over, ran without having much idea of where she was running to, until she fell to the ground and lay still for some time, listening to the gunfire by the forest, which hadn’t stopped but was dying down.

After regaining her breath, she felt her side was wet, and when she touched it with her hand, saw it was bloody, she had also been hit by a bullet but not badly – she could manage. She then heard a groan and listened carefully: someone groaned again. Liepa moved carefully in the direction of the sound, parted the rye, and saw Vilkas lying there bleeding. Help me, help me, the wounded young man begged while trying to press on his wound with his hands. Liepa cut off his trouser leg above his wound and then used his belt to tighten his thigh, attempting to stop the bleeding and bandage the wound. Liepa managed to stop the bleeding but understood it wouldn’t be for long, she had to find help, and so she pulled Vilkas’s arm around her shoulders, and they began to move through a seemingly endless field of rye.

Vilkas groaned from time to time but tried to push forward on his good leg in order to help Liepa drag him along. It all took an interminably long time, but finally they came to the end of the field of rye, the shots in the distance had long since subsided, but they were afraid that the enemy would catch up with them using dogs: We have to hurry, we have to hurry, the blood in the young woman’s temples seemed to throb with the words. It was unbearably hot, with sweat running down their backs, they emerged from the field but couldn’t make out where they’d come to, they crossed a gravel road leading to who knows where, then a mown meadow, moved into bushes and found themselves on top of a slope opposite a big red house on the other side of the river. Part of the building was obstructed by tall, old alder trees, the roof barely visible, but the front of the house facing the river could be clearly seen.

No, there’s no one there, no one, the house is empty, the shadows and figures were only figments of her imagination, just hallucinations due to fatigue. There was no one there, no one.

Liepa decided not to wait any longer, whatever was going to happen was going to happen because Vilkas would bleed to death lying here, he needed help. She made the sign of the cross, kissed the holy medal her mother gave her as a present some time ago and which she always had with her, and touched Vilkas’s shoulder as if to wake him up: Let’s go, we have to go. Vilkas probably didn’t understand anything and only mumbled through his parched lips, his eyes twitched involuntarily, blinking, his eyeballs moving as if the young man was having a nightmare. Liepa stood up carefully, feeling pain in her side where the bullet had hit her, but the pain was bearable, she was dizzy, it seems she had lost a good amount of blood after all. The young woman stood for a while until the dizziness passed and listened carefully to make sure no one was following them, that they weren’t being chased – it was quiet everywhere. Liepa pulled Vilkas right up to the edge of the slope, then came down just a little, squatted, and pulled the wounded young man onto her back. Vilkas was heavy, and to keep him on her back was ever harder because his muscles were completely relaxed, he slid off, her leg slipped, she tripped over a piece of wood and fell with Vilkas on top of her, she only just managed to get out from under the wounded young man, then tried to lift him up again, but it was too difficult, too awkward to stand with the soft earth under her feet.

Liepa grabbed hold of an alder tree with one hand and Vilkas’s shoulder with the other, being careful not to hurt him. Step by step, slipping and sliding, the young woman finally reached the stream. The river bed was eight or ten meters wide, and the water was black and cloudy, even though the current was quite fast. She lay Vilkas right by the edge of the stream, bent down to the water, cupped her hands to get some of it, and washed the sweat off the young man’s face, then wet his parched lips and wiped the blood off his brow and cheek. Vilkas mumbled something.

Liepa stepped into the river, which was unexpectedly deep: the water almost reached her chest. She tried to move forward, checking what was in front of her with her foot: it wasn’t any deeper further on, there was no hole, the river bed was the same depth at the shore as in the middle of the stream. The bottom was soft but not slippery – it ought to be possible to wade across.

The young woman returned to the bank, pulled the wounded young man closer to her, turned around, put him on her back, and began to wade slowly to the other side of the stream. Crossing the stream wasn’t the hardest part. It was the effort to climb out, to get hold of the reeds, and to clamber on to the high bank, which was at chest level. The young man’s body was heavy, the current impeding Liepa in her effort to clamber out of the water, and she kept slipping back. Finally, losing hope, she began wading downstream along the bank. That worked – a little further along, the stream made a loop, where it wasn’t so deep and there were quite a lot of stones by the edge: Liepa put her foot on one of the stones as if on a step, slid a little but managed to stay on, grabbing hold of the sedge grass on the bank, and then managed to crawl on her knees on to the next stone...

And in this way, she slowly managed to clamber out of the water, using one hand to drag Vilkas, who was on her back, behind her, lay him down on the grass and, tired out, she collapsed. She rested for a while but after gathering her strength began again to pull Vilkas along in the direction of the house.

Step by step, they finally reached the house.

The door was locked with a padlock, but the door itself didn’t look sturdy. Liepa found a metal bar in a pile of old rubbish by the house, put it behind the iron loop holding the padlock, and as she pulled hard on it, the loop came out of the rotten wood. There was another door, a double one made of lighter wood, beyond the outside door, and between the outside one and the inner one was a small vestibule stuffed with various bags, buckets, and old boots. Liepa opened the second door and saw a wide staircase leading up to the first floor, light pouring in from above. The light was coming through the fly-spattered windows but mostly from a large hole in the roof and the ceiling. To the sides of the stairs were doors, but they had rotted away a long time ago, eaten up by the damp, and the ground floor was dank and dark – a veritable kingdom of mold and spiders. Vilkas would have to be carried upstairs.

With the last of her strength, Liepa pulled the wounded young man onto her back and, putting one foot in front of the other, step by step, began to climb up. It was extremely hot, and the blood was throbbing in her temples. Her wound started to bleed again, but summoning all her strength, she climbed up and found herself in a large area, like a living room, like a lobby, like a huge dining room. It was silent except for the loud beating of the wings of the birds flying around as if lost. As gently as she could, she laid Vilkas on the floor. He made no sound.

The young woman looked around the strange interior, surprised by what she saw: in the middle of a wide area was a huge round table around which were placed six chairs with high wooden backs, and on the table were the same number of soup bowls with spoons and knives and forks. It seems the people, whoever they were, had left hurriedly because the soup in the bowls had dried out, and half a loaf of bread, as well as some slices, had also dried as hard as stone. Above the table was a huge hole through which the sky shone, as if a huge meteorite had fallen through the roof and the ceiling, without any sign of where it had landed. Liepa understood that the explanation was much simpler, the roof of the house had succumbed to the damp and fallen in, revealing the space, some of the wooden boards, still holding on with rusty nails nailed into the rafters and crossbeams, swung vertically above the table like a menacing chandelier.

As if out of nowhere, a colourful, speckled bird landed in the middle of the table, the young woman recognized the bird to be a jay. She was surprised that the jay was sitting on the table unafraid of anything and only moving its head from side to side, as if interrogating an uninvited guest who had by mistake come into the house. The bird suddenly gave a shrill, frightening squawk, which made the young woman flinch from surprise, then it flapped its wings and flew off through the hole in the roof straight up into the sky.

It became quiet.

Looking around her, Liepa saw a leather sofa and armchair on the left by the wall, and an old-fashioned, beautiful dresser on the right, but its shelves had fallen in, its doors were open and its drawers pulled out, and shards of broken glass from the dresser lay scattered about on the floor. At the far end of the space were several doors, all closed, leading to other rooms.

Liepa turned to Vilkas, who was lying on his back, and knelt down beside him. Vilkas’s eyes were looking straight up, his gaze became lifeless, like glass, and the young woman closed his eyes. When she touched the young man's brow and eyelids, she felt how cold he had already become – death had begun its inexorable work. Liepa wanted to cry out but couldn't, she lowered her head to her chest and knelt like that for a while. Fatigue seized her body, she gathered her strength, stood up and, dragging her legs with difficulty, went to the leather armchair by the wall, sank into it, and felt sleep with the full weight of fatigue pressing on her eyelids.

Before the young woman could even fall asleep, there was a soft sound: something whispering, rustling, as if dust were flowing down the grooves of time or like the sands of an hourglass. Liepa opened her eyelids with difficulty but didn’t move, her body felt unbearably heavy. At first, she couldn’t make out where the sound was coming from, but then she noticed a small slender figure walking around the table. It was an old woman. Liepa wasn’t frightened or even very surprised, she just watched impassively as the old woman approached, stood next to Vilkas’s dead body, knelt beside him, and seemed to touch the young man’s hair and face.

He’s dead, he’s already dead, Liepa said through her cracked lips. The old woman turned to her, came closer, bent down, stroked the young woman’s head with her bony hand, and seemed to smile. But her eyes were strangely black and deep.

Sleep, sleep peacefully, my girl, said the old woman’s smile, and the touch of her hands were soothing and healing. Liepa closed her eyes. It would be good to sleep: somewhere there was the sound of a babbling stream, the cooing of doves, the silent flapping of their wings, and the rustling of the summer wind through the branches of the alder trees.

When Liepa opened her eyes again, the space was flooded with an even purer, brighter light, and her tiredness seemed to fade away, but what was irritating was the bright blinding light. The young woman shielded her eyes with her hand and then was surprised to see people sitting at the table. But the strangest thing was that one of them was Vilkas. He turned to Liepa, smiled at her, and with a wave of his hand invited her to come closer. Liepa got up from the armchair and hesitantly approached the table: also sitting there was the old woman whose wrinkled face Liepa remembered seeing before she fell asleep, a young woman dressed in light-coloured clothes and whose loose hair was almost completely white, and two children – a boy and a girl. The children could’ve been ten or eleven years old.

Someone said, Sit, Liepa, we’ve left a place for you.

There was a free seat at the table, left specially for her, and Liepa sat down. She wanted to say to Vilkas that she thought he was dead, that she was very happy, she wanted to ask how he had recovered so miraculously but for some reason didn’t dare say a word, she was afraid that if she did, everything would be irreparably ruined, cause an upset, and be destroyed forever. Everyone seated at the table had bowls in front of them, bowls full of soup, the soup steaming and smelling delicious. The children ate, probably playing under the table with their feet, whispering to one another and giggling the whole time.

Everything was so peaceful and ordinary, but something didn’t fit in this idyllic picture, in this paradisiacal dream. And then Liepa understood what it was: their eyes, the eyes of everyone seated at the table, were dead, those weren’t even eyes but black holes in their faces through which one could see the darkness of another world. Liepa turned to Vilkas, wanting to tell him that these people were not real, that they had to beware of them, but after she had turned round, she saw that Vilkas’s eyes were also holes and just as empty.

Liepa felt the cold and the fear take hold of her, she no longer wanted to eat the soup, she no longer wanted to be there, but understood that she couldn’t leave!

And it was then that the shining jay alighted on the table.

And as before, the bird suddenly made the most terrifying noise, its voice seeming to drill through her brain. The sound was so strong that everyone sitting at the table closed their dead, all-encompassing, empty eyes from the horror. And in order not to hear the bird, everyone sitting at the table covered their ears with the palms of their hands, and wanting to drown out the jay, they themselves began to shriek in inhuman, high-pitched voices.

Liepa understood that now, now was the moment she could save herself. She jumped up from the table, knocked her chair over, began to run, tripped over the dead person lying on the floor, fell, got up and ran down the stairs: she had to make it to the door, to reach the door, and outside onto the grass!

Translated by Romas Kinka

 

 

Alvydas Slepikas The House shorts 03Asta Rakauskaitė-Julian, Dog. 1998, paper, colored woodcut, 75 x 150 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

 

PAVLOV’S DOGS
Excerpts from an assistant’s diary

February 5th, 1926

That wind and darkness are so oppressive – I loathe winter. But how wonderful it is to come to the laboratory and see that marvelous man, his smile, his eyes – so good and just. When Ivan Petrovich appears, it’s like everything becomes brighter. I still most likely don’t quite realize what an honor and joy it is to work with this genius. What’s most important is how warm and polite he is, but his glance is enough for any brewing quarrels to settle down – his authority is so all-encompassing that even the soldiers that are guarding our institute, it appears, grow pale at the sight of him. Even the bourgeoisierespect him. And there most certainly is respect – it’s no accident that Ivan Petrovich received the Nobel Prize in 1904. To be honest, I don’t exactly understand why he accepted it, but perhaps it’s simply human error. On the other hand, in that horrid tsarist regime, one had to find an opportunity to advance proletarian science. And Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is an example of how proletarian science breaks the ice of the bourgeoisie. Because Ivan Petrovich is a true proletarian (despite the fact that he tells abhorrent anecdotes).

February 15th, 1926

How farsighted comrade Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was. When hunger raged and poverty was rife everywhere, he was able to tend to science. And that is always critical. Proletarian science is the future of our country and a necessity. And how much pain and suffering our great scientists had to bear. A case in point – all the dogs that were in Koltushi died after the revolution. Because of improper feeding. When Ivan Petrovich talked about this, he even got upset. He had thought that all was lost, that all was for naught. Then he asked comrade Lenin to release him from his beloved homeland. He saw no other solution than to leave (though it seems to me that Ivan Petrovich was bluffing). But he did not leave, because comrade Lenin did everything so that Academic Pavlov had the conditions for work and experiments. Because they were not just experiments, but ones of utter importance, which our proletarian health will depend on in the future. But there are still unenlightened and ignorant people that do not understand this. For example, Nikifor, our building caretaker, mutters and waves his hand dismissively: “Science, science, what sort of science is that of yours, you wretched people. All you do is chop up dogs.” It’s horrible that there are such blind and stupid people. Now I am thinking that perhaps it’s my duty as a Communist Youth to report such words by that swine of a building caretaker?

February 16th, 1926

I read Sechenov’s book for the third time already. A fantastic work. A genius book, just not supported by experiments – that’s what comrade Pavlov said about it. It seems I am already understanding why he is so enamored by this work.

February 17th, 1926

Comrade Pavlov trusts me more and more. For example, today – we drove to visit his old acquaintance Nikolai Yuryevich Obolensky. That Obolensky lives with his missus in the middle of the city, in pain and emptiness. He is gray, just like the walls there. Ivan Petrovich sat on his gray bed and took that gray hand of his, not bothered one bit by either the smell or the atmosphere. All the lady of the house did was blow her nose. “My condolences, Marya Alexandrova,” Ivan Petrovich said. And you felt how saddened he was. When we left that gray house, when we drove to Koltushi, Comrade Pavlov sighed and said, “De La Mettrie was right – man is a machine – only a machine made out of flesh and bones.”

February 26th, 1926

The anatomy of the human mouth is almost the same as that of a dog’s mouth. To be honest, I wasn’t very surprised by that. Evolution affects us all the same, people and dogs.

March 5th, 1926

That can’t be true, can it? I found out that Serafima Vasilyevna believes in God. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe, though I heard all sorts of rumors. How could she be the wife of Academic Pavlov and believe in God? After all, the bourgeoisie poison can bury itself into us very deeply. I saw with my own eyes how Serafima Vasilyevna made the sign of the cross. Now I can justify comrade Pavlov and his deep proletarian friendship with Marina Kapitonovna. After all, how difficult it must be as a scientist, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, who communicates every day with a person who means something to you, but who is under the spell of the darkest of superstitions! “Serafima Vasilyevna is the mother of comrade Pavlov’s children, but I am the mother of Academic Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s thoughts and dreams” – those are the words of Marina Kapitonovna, which I now believe in.

March 16th, 1926

Comrade Pavlov is not only a great scientist, but also a great humanist. How good it is to be close to him – a full chest of refreshing and remarkably light air. Today Kolya N. was once again fed chocolate. How unfortunate that around us are so many unenlightened people – the Cheka does not understand the importance of our experiments. Lieutenant Misha, whom I liked earlier, now I hardly like at all – I see how he doesn’t understand why we are feeding some orphan called Kolya chocolate, cabbage cores, and wonderful bread. And I certainly won’t jump to explain to him what conditional and unconditional reflexes are and how they relate to our everyday life. To be honest, Kolya has very sad eyes. I don’t know why.

March 23rd, 1926

I continue to promise myself that I will write you, diary, every day, but I’m not. What’s most important is that it’s not because of laziness, but because of diligence. Comrade Academic Ivan Petrovich Pavlov said, “I am already an old man. Although I will live thirty years more, the operations should be done by the young.” Professor N. I. Krasnogosky fastened a skin irritant to Kolya’s hand. We press the little pump, and Kolya feels the irritation – it evokes salivating in him. Kolya is just like a dog. On professor Pavlov’s instruction, N. I. Krasnogorsky ran a metal fistula from the salivary gland duct through the mouth cavity, which now protrudes out his cheek. And the saliva runs through that fistula into a special pouch. You show Kolya something tasty, for example cabbage, and saliva starts to drip. This kind of reaction from an organism is called a conditional reflex. Academic Pavlov does such pure experiments that he begins to do the experiment only when, after the operation, a child or dog, or for example a monkey, has fully recovered, so no inflammation remains, and when their temperature has returned to normal. Oh, how much we struggled with Kolya, as he needed to be calm and not become agitated, not touch the metal tube coming out of his mouth cavity. But of course, he became agitated, tossed and turned, and scratched. With dogs it’s a bit easier. They are simply placed in a metal frame, where it can feel rather free (the frame doesn’t constrict it) and at the same time be immobilized. With Kolya, we didn’t know at all what to do with him, which is why in the end we were forced to tie his hands together. Kolya looks at us angrily, but the little dimwit doesn’t understand that he’s a participant in a scientific experiment, that he should feel happiness and honor, that he is serving proletarian science. All the more that now he receives fantastic nourishment – meanwhile, the entire country is starving. It’s said that even Comrade Stalin is going without food. But Kolya is not starving – he is shown chocolate or a turnip, and it’s observed what causes more salivation. We are planning onrunning a tube from Kolya’s stomach so we can see how the conditional reflex works there too – we will separate out Kolya’s pure gastric juice. We’ve been doing that with dogs for a long time already. The wound will heal, and the little fistula won’t bother him at all – the little boy will just have to move a little less so he doesn’t ruin the experiment. It is of extreme importance to our country and proletarian medicine because it is science, though sometimes it seems that Kolya couldn’t care in the least.

And the Cheka soldier Misha is jealous of Kolya.

I see that he’s jealous.

I am afraid to write this, but as a scientist I am obliged to – when I think of Misha, my vulva becomes wet. And yet another incident: Misha kneeled in front of me and kissed my knees. I am afraid that the proletariat would not think highly of such bourgeois sentiments. But Misha is a Chekist – a defender of the working class. I don’t know what to do.

March 26th, 1926

How wonderful academic Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s family is. Today a large part of the laboratory workers was invited to the academic’s home. Whoever wanted could even sip on wine. Serafima Vasilyevna played the piano. Everyone tried to persuade Ivan Petrovich to as well, but he refused. In the end, he did sit down at the instrument and while smiling performed “March of the Dogs” with great enthusiasm. We all laughed when our adored academic talked about how he learned to play it and how he was unable to do it, but that he was determined to learn this march and he learned it. It would be unbecoming, he said, if I experimented with dogs and did not know their march. Afterwards, this luminary of science spoke (oh, I still can’t, it seems, fully understand what joy befell me in life, and I thank my destiny every day that I am here in the very hearth of proletarian science), and Ivan Petrovich shared his thoughts and plans, and what experiments awaited in the near future. He decided to become acquainted with research and open the activity of the human brain to the proletarian reality through the experimental path of a physiologist. After all, it’s the same as the stomach, the eyes, the spleen – the brain is also a human organ, just like the others, but thought appears and is born in the brain because physiological laws are at work. We were brought another fourteen young teenagers, such scared, undernourished peasants with oddly enormous eyes from orphanages because their parents were long ago accused of running afoul of the laws of the communist fatherland or died, or perhaps disappeared without a trace. Hungry, some of them sickly – Academic Pavlov ordered us to take good care of them, to attend to them, give them porridge and turnips. And later, when the organisms of these young participants of proletarian science become stronger, we will implant catheters in their stomachs and other organs. The hardest thing will be, of course, with the brains, but N. I. Krasnogorsky is wonderful at performing trepanations, I trust that everything will be fine. Oh, how I am waiting for the beginning of these fascinating experiments.

When we returned from the hospitable home of academic Pavlov, the wonderful French wine that we had drunk made us a little tipsy. Perhaps I acted unwisely, but Misha was so persistent… He really is wonderful, just a little headstrong, but a true soldier of the proletariat’s dictatorship – severe and merciless. And it is me that he loves. Which is why I am not afraid of him at all. Today I even laughed, because it really was funny, that post-coital he stood in the laboratory’s dressing room with a jacket, but without his gallifet, tangled up in his footwraps.

Afterwards, before locking up the laboratory for the night, we checked everything, and I became very angry with Kolya’s behavior – so many orphans want to be in Kolya’s place, serve their Soviet fatherland, proletarian science, and the future. All the more than for the importance of the experiment, Kolya is always well-fed, kept warm, his sheets are changed, and he, thankless, does not appreciate it.

He looks at us with such spiteful eyes. As if he detested us, as if he was an animal. That, by the way, only confirms that a person evolutionarily is no different at all from a dog or other mammal. The only difference is that dogs don’t articulate words. And Kolya sometimes speaks. And who teaches him such language?

“God will curse you,” Kolya tells me.

So small and yet… enemies of the people come from such people.

Translated by Jayde Will

 

 

 

1. Translator’s comment: In this story the two protagonists are Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans. Liepa (’linden tree’) is the nom de guerre of the young woman and Vilkas’wolf’) that of the young man. The Lithuanian guerrilla war lasted almost a decade after the second Soviet occupation of Lithuania in July 1944, although some individual partisans held out into the 1960s. Although doomed to failure because of the unequal struggle, it was an important source of pride and inspiration to Lithuanians in their later peaceful struggle for independence leading to the declaration of the reestablishment of independence on 11 March 1990.

2. Translator‘s comment: Vėjas (‘wind’) is another nom de guerre.

 

 

 

 

 

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