“There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless.”
“The Danish call it Sort Sol – The Black Sun,” said Benjamin, staring up into the early dawn shimmer. Thousands of little starlings had come together in vast formations, dancing across the dark purples and fiery oranges of the sky, the great ball of flapping wings folding into itself, spiraling into the inflamed vaults with elegance and abandon.
“Look at how they obliterate the rising sun,” said Benjamin, sighing contently. “Look at how they twist and twirl in the air, like a ballet of the heavens. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He turned to the pale human skull beside him on the wall and caressed the cranium with the palm of his hand.
“Isn’t it just,” he muttered, and a slow grin crept across his rugged face. The sun-bleached skull grinned back.
“Well,” he said, taking a red leather-bound diary from his coat pocket. “Now you’ve seen it,” and he opened the diary up, leafing quickly through the old, worn pages.
In the dawn light, holding the pages open to the flickering of the African sun, he found the part he was looking for. Taking a pen from another pocket, he drew a neat tick beside the sentence: Witness the migration of starlings.
“There we are,” he said, pleased with himself. Benjamin shut the diary, running devoted fingertips over the red leather cover before returning it to his coat pocket.
“Time for us to go then, my dear Norma,” he said, and picked the skull up from its vantage point on the wall. Cradling it in both hands, he held it up to his face.
He looked into those big, dark, empty sockets and grinned.
Hold on, he thought, like all good stories, he had to start this one at the most obvious point.
Nowhere near the beginning.
A failing writer, Benjamin Purefoy, had retreated into the Outeniqua mountains outside of Wilderness to make use of his Uncle’s secluded woodland cabin. There, in perfect solitude, he would attempt to craft a novel of substance and prestige. For long days on end he would sit down in front of the typewriter and rage and claw and hemorrhage, listening to the sounds of the forest and fighting for that elusive, perfect string of words – the words that would one day grasp the reader by the hand and lead them, tug them or drag them screaming into the next page and the next.
He wrestled tirelessly with the blank page and with himself, but all his fingertips seemed capable of producing were mere fractions of stories. The thin, unravelling knots of plots. His cheap, unbelievable characters broke apart into pieces and scattered into the squall like these dead forest leaves.
His back broke beneath the weight of time and expectation and the genius he knew he possessed, but just couldn’t seem to find the right words for.
The whole problem, he was told, was that he simply used too many hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian words, and it was all just too damn pretentious to bear.
“You’ll never be a famous writer,” said every human being who’d read his work. “Not like this.”
Benjamin had set out into the wild to recapture his passions and prove the naysayers wrong.
Long weeks of dysania and inefficiency passed up there upon spring’s spry bend. This all changed on the first day of the new moon when, out on a walk amongst the trees and rocks and birds, Benjamin Purefoy stumbled upon a cave, the home of a man-eating animal of sorts, and inside he found something that he believed would change his life forever.
Inside, he found love, such a simple little word, enclosed in the pages of a red leather-bound diary clutched to the chest of a half-eaten skeleton.
The next morning, by sunrise, his car was packed and he was gone, having gathered all of his belongings together during the night. The woodland cabin stood empty and silent. The pages of his ostentatious manuscript were left scattered and abandoned across the desk and floor, and when that man-eating animal of sorts came sniffing around the cabin for its stolen treasure, it found nothing at all.
“I wonder, have you ever felt the earth move beneath your feet?
There are birds, and there are those who dedicate their lives to watching them. Perhaps I’ll never be a bird –and perhaps, all you’ll ever be is a bird, filling the space between the moon and the sun.
Have you ever seen the dance of the starlings, or heard the wind sing? Have you ever felt the sound of thunder shaking the sky?
I’ve spent days wishing upon dying stars, streaking through the night. Like a child, I’ve splashed in puddles. These are just sheets of paper, held together with whatever’s left of me. Some days, I still see you in the ink and the pencil.
Have you ever felt that?
If you have, then you know how it feels for me to love you.
If you don’t feel it, you’ll never get it.”
“If you don’t feel it, you’ll never get it,” repeated Benjamin.
He’d parked his car in a small clearing beneath the trees for the night, running trembling fingertips along the yellowing edges of pages, reading by plenilune light cast through the branches above.
“Oh Norma,” he sighed, turning over on his back to admire the skeleton splayed across the backseat beside him. He put his arm around the scapulae and clavicles and pulled the frame of bleached bones closer.
“You really are sublime.”
The roads he’d tramped all his life in search of a functioning tale had no end, they ran in circles. For the first time in his life, an empty hole within him was beginning to fill with ink and ideas. Benjamin Purefoy recited from the splendid diary late into the night, and then dozed off gazing up at the stars through the windows of his car. He watched as the clouds passed over in the darkness and the wind shred them into long unraveled feazings of silver in the moonlight.
The psithurism of rustling trees and leaves rocked him into the deepest of slumbers, and the car headlights burnt well into the early hours of the dawn, burnt brightly, until they flickered and dimmed and died in the final throes of the battery life.
“The Spanish call it Amaneciendo – The moment of time just before daybreak,” muttered Benjamin in his sleep, and in those frigid, dark hours, he pulled Norma ever closer, trying to warm the assembly of cold bones.
“On this haunted plain of memories, the past triumphs over the present. It is only in the foot-stomped paths between the trees and the songbirds that I still find any relief anymore.
I mourn my sweetheart’s passing in a sordid world of unprincipled reprobates, caring about nothing that is long-standing.
Oh sweetheart, what have we done?
It seems at times, we can save anything but ourselves.
I need to escape. Off to the mountains, perhaps. You remember the cabins, up in the woods, where we would climb the escarpments and hang from the ridges of cliffs by nothing but our nerves and our fingertips, listening to the melodic aubades of the dusk.
No one ever said; now that was a nice, speedy sunset.”
With a dead car battery, Benjamin was forced to continue his journey on foot to the nearest town. A grim pilgrimage. A way down the road, he staggered down the embankment and came to a little stream beneath the cool shade of swaying willow trees. The long slender branches swung gently in the breeze, and the stream burbled calmly over the pebbles. He dropped his suitcase by the trunk of a large tree, and beside it he carefully placed the skeleton-stuffed travel bag.
Kneeling in the mud, Benjamin drank cupped handfuls of water and washed the sweat and dirt from his face and neck. When he was done, he sat back on his elbows and shut his eyes, enjoying the cool breeze and the sedative baying of nature.
His feet ached, his shoulders burned, and he’d never been one for long road travel. The nearest town was still some way off – one of those blink-and-you’ll miss it towns, a post office, a convenience store, a flashing traffic light, and then it was gone. From there he could telephone a tow company to retrieve his abandoned car and find a ride home.
So far from home, with nothing for company but screaming feet and a weather-faded skeleton in a bag. At least he had the diary, he thought, brimming with the grandiloquent scrawlings of a heart-broken person forgotten by time.
Norma’s writings awoke in him something long-rumoured to be dead. As if waking from a nightmare to find yourself facing the inside of a coffin lid – maybe, he thought, maybe he’d been schlepping two corpses around.
He patted at the coat pocket, where he kept the diary.
At least he had that.
“Fake happiness is the worst kind of sadness, don’t you think?
This may be madness, but truth is madness and madness is truth truly exposed and to see is always to see too much.
Everything good seems to have died long before we were named. Valium-eyed and cotton-mouthed, I’m left to stalk the barren trails of life beneath Fluoxetine’s sinister gaze.
I’ve hunted black holes of silence to find peace, and in turn that darkness has swept me into an unshakeable fever. I feel like I’m forever breaking. I feel like I’m always digging for the feel of something new.
I have a voice, but I’m not even sure the sounds I make are my own anymore. I’m not sure if I own these thoughts. Some days I speak only to find I haven’t been speaking at all, just humming one of your favourite songs.”
Benjamin awoke with a start. The horrifying sounds of ravenous wild animals dragged him from his dreams, and he turned toward the trunk of the willow to find a pack of stray dogs tearing at his travel bag and its morbid contents.
He leapt to his feet, screaming in horror.
“By God!” he cried. “You leave her alone!” and he scrabbled into the stream for a loose rock.
He hurled it at the nearest creature in a whirl of water and it shattered into the trunk of the willow, just as the arm came off, tearing the humerus from the socket with a rattle.
Benjamin screamed, flailing his arms and running at them, then back into the stream, splashing and kicking, finding another rock, then back out, scrambling, chasing the feral bastard who had taken her arm, but away the scoundrel ran, radius, ulna and bony fingers bounding with the stride.
The dogs scattered, pulling the ribcage from the travel bag. Benjamin shrieked aloud and gave chase, stumbling, and another stray, gnarling beast made his escape, pulling a femur from the joint and sending the pelvis cartwheeling across the muddy grass.
Benjamin made a mad grab at it, clutching the large bone to his chest, and sobbed.
To and fro he darted, left and right, ebbing and flowing in this tide of terror like a drowning sheep, watching the beasts render Norma bone from bone.
When it was over, he lay on his knees, soaked and shaking, watching the monsters flee up the embankment and down along the stream, their frothy maws clamped around the bones of his darling.
When they were gone from sight, he crawled on hand and shaking knee toward the scene of the carnage, and raked the remaining bones together into a small pile.
“Means to gather into a pile,” he stammered shakily, his face sagging with periblebsis, running muddy fingers through his wet hair. He rolled the skull over, and then picked it up to cradle it in his arms.
There, Benjamin Purefoy sat beneath the shade of a weeping willow and wept, wept ugly, wandering where his life had gone so wrong.
And then, further on down the road, he met Obert.
“You say this is your wife?” asked Obert, looking down into Benjamin’s travel bag, his broad face aghast and appalled.
“It’s the only way I could get her home,” said Benjamin, smiling sadly. “I didn’t know where else to put her.”
Obert’s lips were pulled back in revulsion, akin to the flehmen response of a big black farm horse. On the side of the road, he turned to Benjamin and with an open mouth, cleared his throat with a phlegmy gurgle.
Benjamin took a step back, covering his own mouth and nose with his hand. The travel bag lay open on the backseat of Obert’s battered old Ford Escort, and inside were the bent and folded half-eaten bones of a human skeleton. The skull lay grinning up at them from the top of the mound.
“My God,” muttered Obert. “My God, man. You should phone the police.”
“I know it looks bad,” he said. “But it’s like I told you, she’s my wife. I need to get her home.”
Obert ran a trembling hand across his sweaty brow.
“To give her a proper burial,” added Benjamin, and he smiled at the tall black stranger.
“You say you found her in a cave?”
“Well, some sort of cave, yes,” Benjamin nodded, shuffling his feet in the gravel.
Obert shook his head from side to side in astonishment, speaking quietly to himself in inaudible guttural noises. His big eyes seemed to tremor as they moved back and forth between the backseat and this peculiar man.
“Whatever lived there made off with some of her, I couldn’t find a couple of pieces,” said Benjamin. “But I have the pieces that count, I suppose.”
Obert nodded, more to himself than anything.
“Such a terrible thing to happen to a person,” he muttered, nodding. “I am very sorry for this.”
Benjamin shuffled forward and gave him a single reassuring pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m just glad we finally found her.”
“You will take her to her family?” asked Obert, raising an eyebrow.
“Of course, that’s the plan. They’ll be really happy. It’s been hell on all of us,” muttered Benjamin, drifting into a morose state of phony dismay and reminiscence. This was all a straight-faced lie, of course, all a grand, mawkish charade performed for the tall black stranger.
A stranger he may be, but he was a stranger with a working car, thought Benjamin, and he was tired of walking. Time to bring it home, he told himself. “She went out hiking one day, seventeen years ago, and she just never came back,” he said, forcing a single dishonest tear. It rolled across his dusty cheek, and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his coat.
“It’s okay, man,” said Obert.
“Does that mean you’d give us a lift then? We’re headed your way, to Johannesburg? I see your car’s license plate says you’re from Johannesburg. I live there.”
Obert nodded, unable to tear his trembling eyes from the grinning skull in the backseat.
“Yes, I will give you a ride,” he managed. “What was her name?”
“Oh!” Benjamin threw a hand into the inside of his coat, and withdrew it holding the red leather-bound diary. He opened it up to the first page, and scrawled across the threadbare sheet in a graceful hand was the faded name, NORMA.
“Norma,” he read, holding the page up for Obert to see. “My wife’s name was Norma. Like Norma Jean,” and he smiled. “She looked just like her too.”
“Where did you leave your car?” asked Obert.
The long, narrow road stretched out before them, rolling by relentlessly beneath the tattered Escort, never ending, never changing, sinking and rising into the horizon.
Benjamin lifted his head from the rattling window.
“Between nowhere and happiness,” he answered.
“I wish I knew how I was going to be happy without you.
In the tests of generous love, we defied all of mankind, but something in this heart of mine is telling me it’s time to stare down the eye of destiny. Like a voice drifting through the rain at night, like a ghost on the side of the road.
I’m just trying to keep my head together. When the silence of the world holds me, and when I am agonized with disquiet, I sometimes think the good times will probably never come back again.
Perhaps I’ve just grown distrustful. My mind is plagued by these deceitful bell-ringers of alarm, and darkness seems to surround me in broad daylight.
I’m so confused. I don’t know the meaning of it all. The distance to the sun. The emptiness that is youth. The loneliness of the heart. The hum and buzz of the soul.
I can’t really sit and tell you what any of what I write here means. If you are reading it then it was simply written, once upon a time. But if you must leave with something, leave with knowing that I do know the echo that is love; I hear its brontide footsteps fading into the faraway distance, as if somebody is slowly turning down the volume.
Like a machine shaking and shuddering with voltage, I’m giving in to whatever moves me.”
“Have you written anything famous?” asked Obert.
Benjamin shook his head slowly from side to side.
“What have you written then?”
Benjamin grimaced. “Not much, really,” he said, and turned to see if the rolling scenery outside his window had changed. It hadn’t.
“I have problems getting published. They say I’m too magniloquent.”
Obert turned to look at him.
“Magniloquent,” he repeated. “I don’t know this word.”
Benjamin nodded, smiling politely.
“Yeah… Therein lays the quandary.”
“What do you keep reading in that little book?” asked Obert.
Benjamin looked up from the pages of the diary.
“Just thoughts,” he answered. “Just some of Norma’s thoughts. It makes me feel closer to her.”
“She was a great writer,” said Benjamin. “I wish I could voice my thoughts the way she did,” and he shut the diary, placing it neatly in his lap.
“Some days I just open it up at random, and read whatever’s there.”
He turned to look out of the window.
“It always seems applicable.”
Obert cleared his throat.
“My babamkhulu – my grandfather, used to be a painter and a great writer of poetry,” he said, staring out at the road ahead. He turned to glance at his sullen passenger.
“He always used to say, an empty canvas, a block of marble, a blank sheet of paper – these are all God’s way of showing us how difficult it is to be God.”
Benjamin turned away from the window.
“The blank sheet of paper is like the face of God, staring at you, waiting for you to change the world,” said Obert.
“Keep trying, it will come…”
Staring out at the windy, grassy hills in silence, Benjamin noted the clouds, resembling ghostly ships – sailing by slowly on the swaying brim of the horizon and shedding parts of their fluffy white sails into the blue sky.
Benjamin wondered how much of themselves would remain by the time they finally reached their destinations.
At a fuel station rest stop beside the road, while Obert used their bathrooms, Benjamin sat in the seat of the car with the door open and his legs out. Between his feet on the paving lay his travel bag, and while he waited he rummaged through its grim innards, trying to assess just how much of Norma he had lost to the dogs.
Some ribs, most of her spine, both complete legs, an entire arm and both hands were all gone. He turned to look at the backseat where he had placed the large pelvis and skull beneath a blanket, so as to avoid any suspicious looks from the other weary travelers.
With those two key pieces, and the contents of this bag, he had enough, perhaps, to glue together some kind of depraved version of her when he got home.
“What would you call being in love with a dead person?” he muttered, smiling at the skull. He turned and zipped the bag shut. He sat upright, looking furtively around him. He slid the bag beneath the car with his foot.
“God Almighty,” he said. “I surmise you’d call it Necrophilia.”
Benjamin swallowed hard and shuddered.
The unified hiss of a disapproving audience.
Night was fast approaching. They were thirty minutes down the highway from the rest stop when Benjamin realized – with the worst kind of horror – that they had left the godforsaken travel bag behind, and panic began to take hold.
Obert turned the car around, his large white eyes rattling with tension like balls in a bingo machine. When they arrived back at the rest stop fifteen minutes later, that wretched travel bag was gone, and Benjamin stood wild-eyed in the parking lot with his fingers tangled up in his dirty hair.
The travel bag was gone.
Gone, and Benjamin would be damned if he was going to go asking around for it.
He turned to Obert, hovering traumatized by the car, and he’d never thought he’d see a black man go pale, but this day he did.
“Shit…” he muttered, searching Obert’s broad face. “Fucking shit.”
He expected the big man, right then and there, to turn and leap back into his car and maroon his sorry ass in these rotten open waters to drown. But thankfully his travel companion could identify that rare kind of dread mangling his idiotic chalk-white face, and when he finally spoke, he simply said, “Get in, Mr. Benjamin. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“I’ve finally made it to the mountains, where we used to spend the better days of our romance breathing the wild air and watching the corners of our cabin gather what the wind blows in.
At nights I hear the footfalls of your ghost pacing the cabin, I hear the creak of the old wooden floorboards and at times I can almost smell you. Like the scent of sunshine soaked into a cotton shirt. I wake to the sounds and perfumes of some long ago memory, and then you’re gone, cast back into oblivion.
You’re here, and then you’re not, in and out like a phantom tide, and I’m reminded that none of us are here forever. Like sunsets and sunrises, white winds and full moons. Like the inconsolable travelers of this volatile world…
We’re all just… Passing through.”
Benjamin cried for a long time, right into the late hours of the night, holding the ominous white skull in his arms and rocking back and forth in the restraint of his seatbelt.
Obert said nothing for most of the way. He stole silent sidelong glances at his grief-stricken passenger davering in and out of violent sobs, and came to the conclusion that the man was inconsolable.
The poor bastard, he’d lost his wife all over again.
What could anybody say to make that better?
“There were so many things she still wanted to do,” said Benjamin, looking up at Obert. His eyelids were rubbed red and sticky with dried tears.
“Things I wasn’t even aware of, I mean.”
For the first time in many lonely years, Benjamin had no fancy words to call upon. He was left alone among the common people, abandoned to stew in the echoes of another spectacular failure.
Obert turned to look at him.
“What kind of things?” he asked.
Benjamin scanned the scribbled marginalia of the delicate diary pages under the car’s dome light.
“Things like… Smoke a cigar at the summit of Kilimanjaro,” he read aloud. “Or meet the mermaid of the Karoo.”
Obert smiled softly, turning his eyes back to the road unfolding in their headlights.
“Those sound nice,” he said.
“Witness the migration of starlings,” Benjamin continued. “Or drive a Ford Mustang.”
“It’s not a Mustang, I wish it were a Mustang,” he said. “But she is in a Ford right now.”
Benjamin smiled meekly.
Obert turned to him again, holding up a large finger.
“There is one of those I might help with,” he said, smiling. “A very slight detour on our way home, a place I know, not too far away. We will make it by dawn if we drive through the night. Get some rest.”
“I’ve lifted some stones out here, trying to find you, but all I’ve unearthed are the skeletons of a world without a soul.
There’s only one place left to look, I suppose…
There’s a specific, maddening breed of danger out here on the edge, and final understanding.
Sitting here with my feet dangling out into the void, I’m watching the sun crash from the atomic sky into the horizon, and there is golden fire on the edge of the mountains.
I don’t want the fear to leave me, fear holds the moment still.
When you come to the edge of all you have known and are about to shift over into the unfamiliar darkness, one of two things could happen.
Either there will be something solid for you to stand on…
Or you will outsoar the shadow of the night.”
And now, thought Benjamin, back to where we left off.
Thousands of little starlings in vast formations, still dancing gracefully across the dark purples and fiery oranges of the sky, the great ball of flapping wings folded into itself, spiraling into the inflamed vaults with elegance and abandon.
Sort Sol – The Black Sun.
The murmurations obliterated the climbing light. Benjamin shut the diary, running devoted fingertips over the red leather cover before returning it to the safety of his coat pocket.
“Time for us to go then, my dear Norma,” he said, and picked the skull up from its vantage point on the wall. Looking into those big dark empty sockets, he grinned again.
“Means to kiss,” he said to the skull. “Using the tongue.”
Benjamin puckered his lips and kissed the skull upon the bony mouth.
In his heart, he knew Norma had leapt to her death from the cliff tops on a September 14th so long ago, he knew that while her heart still throbbed it beat for another, and she just couldn’t face this place without him.
He imagined, now beneath the fluttering hurricane of starlings, that she and her lover were among them, outsoaring the raptor-talons of the night and singing along to the songs of dawn.
That was all then though, he thought, and what was left of her belonged to him now.
Obert called from the road, and Benjamin dropped the skull into his lap.
“Yes?” he answered.
“We must be on our way, Mr. Benjamin, we need to make up lost time,” shouted Obert. “You will be home soon!” He stood leaning back against the car, its headlights burning into the murky dawn light.
“Alright,” he muttered, inaudible over the high reverberating screech of the starlings, and climbed down from the little wall. With the skull tucked safely beneath his arm he ambled up the embankment to the waiting car.
“This is it,” said Benjamin, and Obert pulled the rattling Escort up into the driveway of an old brick house in Bryanston.
“Home sweet home,” said Obert, smiling a broad, nervous smile.
Benjamin nodded politely, looking out at the shaded front door of his home.
“Thank you so much, Obert, for everything,” he said, extending a hand to the big man. Obert took it gently in his giant paw and shook it.
“You’re the most interesting man I’ve met, Mr. Benjamin,” he said, chuckling. “I wish you the best of luck.”
Benjamin nodded again and opened the door to get out.
“There is one other thing though,” said Obert, his smile fading. “I have been wondering, for a while, if I should tell you or not, but I feel I must…”
“What is it?” asked Benjamin, swinging a leg out onto the driveway.
“Well,” said the big man, hesitating. “Something I noticed, but I may be wrong…”
Benjamin frowned. Obert’s bulging eyes had begun to tremble again, shivering in their sockets.
“You have only the skull left,” he said. “And the pelvis.”
“Just something I noticed, early this morning while we were watching the birds.”
“What’s that?” asked Benjamin, turning in his seat to face the big man.
Obert took a deep breathe, wary of continuing, his eyes vibrating with uncertainty.
“Go on,” urged Benjamin.
“Well,” he said quietly. “The pelvis, you left it in the car.”
Benjamin’s frown deepened.
“I looked at it,” continued Obert. “The pelvis you have, the… sacrum, is it? Is long and narrow. Straighter. The pelvis is not as wide as it should be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the pelvis of a woman is more rounded, it is wider,” said Obert, spreading his large hands open. “The sacrum is shorter.”
“And what does that mean?”
Obert exhaled patiently, his throat rumbling.
“My sister,” he said. “She’s an orthopedic surgeon, back home. We used to help her study.”
Imbroglio, creeping imbroglio…
“I suspect,” he said slowly. “I suspect you took the wrong skeleton, Mr. Benjamin.”
Obert turned to look into the backseat, where the pale, gnawed pelvis bone lay beside the suitcase.
“I fear the skeleton you found is not your wife,” he said. “It is the skeleton of a man.”
Benjamin Purefoy sat out in a comfy chair on his porch, apricating in the left-over rays of the sun and smoking a cigar. Inside, laying open upon his writing desk beneath a lamp rested the well-thumbed red leather-bound diary.
The light of the lamp fell softly onto the open page, a page inked with a single name.
“But no,” muttered Benjamin, through puffs of smoke. “Not Norma.”
Not Norma at all, for beside the name, another faded letter was barely visible. Barely visible, which until now he had never noticed, but still it existed.
Benjamin nodded to himself.
“Norman,” he said. “Goddamn Norman,” and he gently flicked at the cigar above a white skull resting, grinning quietly from a table beside the chair. The top of the cranium had been sawn clean off, and the ash fell neatly into it.
“Is the sentimental feeling one has about a person they once loved,” said Benjamin. “But no longer feels anything for.”
Jason Mykl Snyman is recommended by 4 out of 5 people that recommend things, and still has a couple of friends in spite of himself. Recently shortlisted for Short Story Day Africa’s “Terra Incognita” prize and published in the subsequent anthology – and a finalist in this years SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment competition. He is the Fiction Editor of EXPOUND magazine. If he were an animal, he’d be a bear. Not the fluffy kind. He Blogs at the strange brontides Find him on his Facebook Page.
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