The Mountain

by Mary Tappan Wright

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Monday, August 7.     
OUT of the silence and the night I am calling! I, who know not true speech, nor bear in mind the echo of any single sound. I, in whose memory lingers no shadow of human frown nor light of human smile; for thus the people of the outer world, which is my lost inheritance, tell me their faces gloom and gleam.
     Something welling up within me demands expression, my own expression in my own tongue—not my dumb tongue, taught to speak, haltingly, in terms of color and of sound—for to-night I rebel, I bitterly rebel, before this compulsion of expressing myself in another language and living another life than my own. They insist that I distinguish with my fingers between red and blue. They read me their verses, full of azure skies where floating clouds move stately, like snow-white ships; a mass of fleecy sail. They make me learn their poems all about the purple of the hills, the green of the trees, the scarlet flame of the autumn woods, and the deep dark blue of the sea. I have learned it all by heart; I speak of it intelligently; and they expect me to be glad.
     It is as dust in my nostrils!
     Still, I have not deceived, and when I have laughed and talked with my friends I have been honestly cheerful. I love them! Under the delicate touch of my fingers I recognize them, one from the other—none are alike to me. I am even conscious when they are gay and when they are sad. There are days when I know that an instinct is given me which they do not possess, and there are times when the lack of eyes and of ears means that there are but two barriers the less between their souls and mine. I cannot hear the deceitful tone that makes the grave saying light, nor the light saying that is full of heartbreak. I cannot see when their eyes contradict the smile upon their lips; nor their lips curve with fun while their tongues are uttering bitterness.
     And if to a disembodied spirit all things are known, why may it not be that, in so far as I lack the perceptions of sense, just by so much do I come near to the essence of the true knowledge of souls?
     But how I have striven to see with others' eyes, and to hear with others' ears, and to speak with others' tongues!
     And how I am alone!

     This evening I have been sitting a long time with Mamma and the rest of them on the porch below. They tell me that before us stretches a fertile valley; a winding river glitters at the foot of the pine-covered hills on the other side of it, and beyond these, all about us, piled high in the air, rise the great, still mountains. Occasionally a hand would drop into mine, spelling out to me, with soft reverent touch, some sweet, trivial incident of the moment. Tiny warm breezes puffed against my forehead and blew back my hair. The atmosphere seemed all still and free from concussion. Without being told, I knew that the little children who romp and scream daily upon the lawn were tucked away snugly in their beds. From the hill above us a faint, keen vibration struck downward upon my closed-ears. Some one was playing a violin. I felt it; still, I did not say so—I grow so tired of their constant surprise—but even this ceased before long, and as it became later the others, one by one, went away, and we two were left alone together.
     I wonder why I love the night? Is it because then people come nearer to me, being all blind? Is it the darkness that makes them tread softly and move carefully and cautiously, like me? The touch on my hand that told me, a little while ago, that I was lovely, was the tender, fleeting touch of the blind. He does not touch me thus in the daylight.
     How quickly he has learned to talk with his fingers! A month ago he did not know how to make the letters! four weeks ago, four short weeks!
     The people of the outer world say “weeks” and “days” and “months” to me, while I only know that I rest, and rise, and eat, and drink, and sleep, and study at their times.
     My dear mother is reading to me from the works of a great old man whom they call George Meredith, and—he laughed when I told him of it. I could feel the quiver in the air of the sudden little explosion of mirth.
     “You poor child!” he said, spelling it slowly. “Do they make you wade through all that?”
     And when I said that I did not wade, that I loved it, he did not believe me; not even when I told him that the book gave me a feeling as if I, myself, were climbing the mountains, would he be convinced.
     “You shall try it some day,” he said. “I will take you up the Giant—then you will find the difference.”
     So to-morrow we are going together. We have been together this morning, we were together yesterday, both days in the warm sunshine; and last week when it rained almost constantly, we trudged along the muddy roads together in the showers. The water dashed in my face. I wonder if his was wet. It must be strange—seeing!
     Mamma trusts me to him in these long rambles, because they say that he is good, noble even. With all his great wealth, he is simple and honest and wise. He gives to the poor, he sacrifices his own pleasure and comfort for the sake of many, many causes. He gives to education; he gives to art; he works, himself, in the depths of the slums, with his own hands. The older people told me all this.
     One of the girls said that he was dull.
     I know by myself that he is young, and that he is not bad to look upon; for, that first day when they brought him to me and I let my fingers wander over his face, I remember a straight nose, deep eye sockets, thin gaunt cheeks, and a square, determined chin under a short, pointed beard, but—when I touched his lip it trembled. One quick, short quiver. I could never touch his face again!
     Oh, women that have eyes! Oh, women that have ears!

Tuesday, August 8.      
     How do I know that, to some people, I am repulsive? No one has ever told me, but I have learned it—from the shrinking muscles of their hands, from the slight withdrawal of their heads backward, away from my groping fingers. I think I know it, too, by the warnings that I have had not to laugh. Oh! never to be able to laugh! And they have taught me that I must not open my eyes and turn my face towards people; but they have not told me why. Is there a different look in my eyes from that in other eyes? Is there a different sound in my voice from other voices?
     I know that I am not ugly, for they have trained my fingers in the lines of other things that are beautiful. They let me feel the statues—I have casts all my own that I touch reverently, carefully, and I think that their loveliness gives me pleasure; or is it because I can investigate and try and measure with these unresponsive things, where, with shrinking faces I am withheld? I do not know. I only speculate; everything is a vast, dark speculation!
     This morning we started out to climb one of the lesser mountains not far from the cottage, but we had scarcely got to the foot of the first slope when Mamma slipped and fell. She caught my hand, wrenching and squeezing it, and I knew that she was in pain, too great to spell out to me what was wrong. Then I felt him come and kneel beside me, where I held her as she rocked back and forth.
     In that real outside world they asked each other questions and answered and returned answer, while I knelt, not knowing what had happened. I became so frightened that I reached out my hand to him, but he did not see; and so in my terror, wishing to know what he was saying, I put my fingers to his lips to feel the words.
     Then suddenly he drew back his head, quickly, sharply, away from my touch.
     Yes, there are people to whom I am repulsive.
     And yet—was it yesterday evening?—he told me that I was lovely!

Saturday, August 12.      
     All this week I have stayed with Mamma. I have fetched and carried for her, almost as a seeing girl would do, and he and others have helped. She has let me bandage her ankle, for she had sprained it badly, and I have rubbed it and taken care of it. The tips of my fingers search out the pain, and know how to squeeze and knead and press it away.
     What a joy of service, every day, comes to those who see and hear and speak. What a joy of service is denied to me! But I have tried to be happy with what I have. Dear God, I have had to try so hard, for all the time I could not but remember that there were people to whom I was repulsive! I would ask my mother about it, only I know she would not tell me.

Sunday, August 13.      
     This morning I asked my cousin, Belle Lambert, whether she ever felt that feeling towards me. She said no, never since I was a little, little girl.
     I had rather a million times that she hated me now than that her repulsion should have been such a real thing that even the sweetness and helpfulness of childhood could not overcome it! Things come brutally to us that are conveyed to the seeing and the hearing ones in half a glance and the faintest inflection of a sound, and we must suffer all our suffering within.
     But, in spite of all that, it has been a long, sweet, pleasant Sunday. He has been here, in and out, reading the Meredith book to Mamma, and she has told me in my hand, as he went along, what he was reading.
     I have carefully kept my face turned away all the time, that it might not disturb him. And then he came to me and said that he thought I looked pale and ill and weary, and that Cousin Belle Lambert was going to take care of Mamma to-morrow, and he was going to take me with him for a long day on the mountain. It was kind of him, out of his pity.

Monday, August 14.      
     I awoke this morning to the steady drumming of rain upon the roof; I could feel it thrilling through the walls, and when I went to the window and stretched out my arm, the water splashed down and wet my sleeve.
     He came and read again. The day was dark; we had to move Mamma's chair away from the fireplace nearer to the light, and he and I sat together on the window-seat. I could feel him move restlessly from time to time, and once he drummed with his fingers impatiently.
     The little tap, tap came to me, and I asked why he did it. “He can hardly believe that you felt it,” Mamma spelled out in my hand.
     “I could even feel the different quality of the strokes,” I answered.
     They talked together a moment and I waited. “He thinks that you might learn to telegraph,” Mamma said to me at last. “Let him explain.”
     I stretched out my hand towards him, an he took it in his. I felt him lean forward, between Mamma and me.
     “Don't change countenance,” he spelled; “it makes no difference whether you learn to telegraph or not, only will you please let me speak to you alone some time to-day?”
     Mamma's hand took mine from his. “Do you think you could do it?” she asked.
     I nodded my head at both her question and his.
     He spent the rest of the morning trying to teach me; my progress was not rapid. I do not think he knows very much about it himself; but when he tried to say things to me that were not meant for Mamma, something made me refuse to answer. I did not wish to deceive her; moreover, she is very quick, and I felt that it was not wise to try, so that he has had no opportunity to speak with me alone.
     It cleared this evening; we are to take our walk up the mountain to-morrow; perhaps he will speak to me then.
     They have often told me of the great crouching mountain in the distance, lying out along beneath the sky, all its sides ribbed by rain and torrent, and torn by lightning. I have felt its presence, huge, lofty, silent; and every night when I go to bed here, I have stood in the window and called across to it in the same dumb language which it uses to me:
     “Oh, you, that have borne and suffered and never spoken, that in the daytime and in the nighttime endeavor without complaint, strengthen and uplift your dumb sister!”

Wednesday, August 16.      
     I was tired last night, more tired than I ever have been in my life, and all day I have been busy with Mamma.
     We started early yesterday morning, and drove to the foot of the mountain —a long drive in the fresh air. I asked him if he felt it so, too, and he said: “Of course; that was the way it was.”
     They are so sure of these things!
     We left our carriage at a farmhouse. The farmer's wife scarcely wanted us to leave her. She was so curious to see and talk with me that she kept my hand to her lips, asking me why I wanted to go to the top of the Giant when I could not see the view. Then he said that we had no time to waste and pulled me away; his touch felt quite angry. I wondered what I had done.
     It was a long climb, but not very hard—that is the reason that he chose this mountain, because there is a logging path nearly all the way to the top. On we went, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shadow, sometimes in the deep woods where the air scarcely stirred, and sometimes out upon the steep pasture slopes; and the higher we went the more he told me of the far mountains we could see in the distance. A deep excitement took possession of me—I began to feel as if I were ascending slowly, slowly into the company of my own. We did not talk very much, and I was careful most of the time to keep my face turned away, remembering that little quiver in his lip when my finger had touched him.
     It is kind of him to take so much pains with one for whom he does not care; but I began to forget even my trouble about this in the joy of getting home. Further and further we went; under my feet I could feel the hard stones, and for the last long pull we scrambled over bare rugged cliffs where, more than once, he had to drag me up bodily for fear I should slip. All breathless we came to the top; I caught his hand and spelled out to him that I knew we were there.
     Space trembled through me; I was a part of it; between me and heaven there was nothing, and far down, away below, lay the puzzling, puzzling world of little human creatures who needed to look and speak. There, aloft, I dwelt with my own, and he seemed to be one of them, for he made no sign, told me no word. If he had described and pointed and said, “Here is the field behind the cottage and there the tall twin elms that border the brook,” I think it would have broken my heart. It was enough that we two sat alone, part of the very eternal Silence itself!
     The healing of the hills encompassed all my torn and suffering spirit, and my heart spoke: “Brothers,” I cried, not in the hideous voice which grates on hearing ears, but in the dumb tongue of the mountains, my kindred—“Brothers, I am here alone with one I love! So, through countless ages, you, too, have been alone. Perhaps in dim, clear nights the great angels swoop down and, resting on your pinnacles, fold, for a time, their tremendous wings; and only love, vast, silent, unspoken and unrecognized, throbs in your deep hidden hearts; then you suffer as I suffer a sorrow whose well-spring is joy. Brothers! Brothers!”
     I forgot myself and stood up with my arms stretched out wide, holding my face to the sky; and he also rose and gently put his hand on the skirt of my dress. I dropped my arms and turned towards him. “This mountain is my brother,” I spelled out to him; it was a quotation from the book we had read together the day before.
     And he answered me back, “I put my hand upon your dress to stay you lest you should start forward; if you were to slip or stumble upon the edge of this precipice, you would find your brother cruelly hard.”
     “On these heights we do not stumble,” I told him.
     He waited a minute, and then he answered: “You always are on these heights. I had not thought of it before, but the feeling you give me—”
     But I pulled my hand away. I could not have him tell me the feeling that I gave him then; I wanted to be happy in the warmth of the sun as the mountains are.
     After that, as if he understood, he tried to make things pleasant and gay. We went back to a little hut that was built for camping further from the chasm; he had had wood carried up the day before, and our luncheon had been sent ahead of us, so we made a fire and cooked things. I am so young that there are times when I cannot help being happy. I was happy then; I shall remember it no matter what comes—nothing can steal it away. I shall wear it, as people who see wear beautiful things, it will make me lovelier—forever.
     The cooking and the fire made me thirsty, but, by an unguarded movement, I had overturned the canteen, and as the climb to the spring was too steep for me, he said he would leave me and get me a drink of water if I would promise not to stir. I begged him to take me back to the precipice above the valley; for a while he refused, but at last, when I had almost cried for disappointment, he consented, and telling me that he would return in ten or fifteen minutes, he left me facing the great open space only two feet away from the edge. The sun had been shining there all day long, and as I leaned back, I could feel the rocks warm against my shoulders. I held up my face to the sky, and a sense of self-possession, of rest and peace, came upon me. The indignity of my blind, dumb, silent poverty was forgotten, and in the strong protecting embrace of this greatest of my kindred I fell asleep.
     I must have slept some time, when the terrifying, shaking, soul-shattering concussion of thunder waked me; it seemed all about me; I did not remember where I was until I had taken one or two steps; then I remembered! The rain began pelting upon my bare head, and the wind, suddenly loosening my hair, lashed it like whips about my face. In springing up I had lost my sense of direction. For a moment, in the awful terror of it, I believed he had been killed, that he would never come to me any more; but I had hardly thought this when I was drawn backward so sharply and violently that I lost my balance and staggered into his arms. Something pressed my head—once, twice, a third time! So it is when my mother stoops and kisses the parting of my hair. Only— it could not have been. But I leaned against him and a little sob broke from my lips.
     “Are you frightened? Are you hurt?” he asked.
     “I thought that you were killed, that the lightning had struck you.”
     “The storm gathered behind the Wilderness; my back was to it, and I had not noticed how near it was coming. This flurry has passed, but I see another thundercloud coming up down the valley; we must be as quick as we dare,” he spelled back to me, and throwing his arm about me, he hurried me over the bare face of the rock towards the trail.
     Ah, that rush downward! The mountain spoke; the mountain laughed. I could feel the deep tread of its trampling feet, shaking, pounding, thrilling, all about me, as we strode on together, we three; he and the Mountain and I. The breath of its shouting tore at my hair and lashed my garments about my limbs; the rough stones rolled under our flying footfalls, and my face was stung by a thousand little whips; my teeth chattered with the cold, and my heart sang with the glory of it.
     “It is hailing,” he spelled on my hand. “Bend your head.”
     But I would not bend. With my eyelids closed and my lips shut tight I faced it, rushing on down the path, and, though he tried, he could not hold me back. I had come to my own, I was mad with joy.
     I cannot remember which became stilled the first, but all at once I knew that my brother the Mountain was left behind, and we two were walking along quietly in the warm rain hand in hand.
     The carriage was waiting for us, and we drove home without attempting to talk. The damp fresh air blew in our faces, and from the roadside came the delightful odors of the wet woods: ferns and balsam and Balm of Gilead; and the storm on the mountain seemed a wild, glorious dream. But Mamma was frightened when we told her of it. She made me let them wrap me warm in blankets and sent me to bed. I slept long and sweet, and today I have taken up the old life, reading, doing little errands for Mamma, bandaging her foot, and trying what I could to be of use.
     But—I have lived! I have lived!

Thursday, August 17.      
     A strange thing happened. He thinks that I dislike him. He knows that I trust him; but he feels that he is stupid and dull and unable to interest me. I told him that it was not true.
     “Are you sure?” he asked.
     “Very sure,” I answered.
     “Then why is it that, while you are willing to feel what other people say with their lips, you will never use that method with me?”
     “I thought that you preferred this way,” I returned.
     “I am going to say something to you now,” he spelled; “I want you to feel it!”
     I turned my head from side to side, thinking there were people near.
     “They are none of them here,” he said. “They have gone over to look at the comet through the telescope; we are alone.”
     I stretched out my hand; he bent his face nearer, I felt his breathing upon my fingers, and all at once I dared not do it. Slowly, slowly I stepped backward, and in the still blackness where I dwell I moved through the hall, and with that other sense of which they knew nothing I found the stairs. The treads, pushing, each, against my noiseless feet, seemed to lift me of themselves.
     My door is shut and I am alone with happiness. I do not understand myself.
     Ah, why do I laugh and hide my face? He understands me!

Friday, August 18.      
     What have I done? He has gone away. Belle Lambert came over at noon and told us that he went off on the early train before breakfast. I did not think it was possible for him so to misunderstand.
     And yet why should he understand?
     I must think. He asked me to let him tell me something and I ran away. What if he meant to say some common, every-day, trifling thing, as people do when they ask me to feel their speech? What if, in my foolish joy, I betrayed myself?
     Dear Lord, I pray that he may have misunderstood!
     But no, I must go down deep into my heart and grapple with this thorny pain. He has gone away quietly to let me know how useless it is. He needn't to have done that! In my soul of souls I knew it already; but I had rather it had come some other way. If only we might have drifted apart, gradually, as other people do!
     I have always known that this was what would happen to me. I began to understand it with the first poetry I ever really felt. I have always been prepared.
     A person like me, shut out from normal things, must not expect —to live, continuously.

Saturday, August 19.      
     Let me put it down!
     Yesterday morning the people of the house all went away to spend a day in the woods near Moose River, where I had been before. As there was no walking to be done, they persuaded Mamma to go with them, but I, for once, set myself obstinately against everybody else and would not leave home. They seemed to think it ill-natured. I could not help it; I had to be alone. Even darkness and silence were not seclusion enough; I wanted the World to myself.
     I brought my books down and sat out-of-doors on the porch. And as I passed my hand across the pages, it seemed as if my mind went on working above the thoughts that came to me through the touch of my fingers, and this so cold and heavy a sorrow began to beat in my veins like joy. For, all at once, the tie drew tight between me and all humankind. I need never stop loving him—never, so long as I lived! I was not cut off; I could love as others loved and sorrow as others sorrowed. I need no longer tell myself in bitterness that sight and sound and speech were accidents, mere gross and fleshly aids to our knowledge of each other, for what I had learned in bitterness I now understood in peace. All the deepest things are in common; and people who love and suffer, love and suffer in their hearts and not with their eyes nor their ears nor their lips!
     (I wish I might write this as I felt it then—but I cannot! The fountain of youth is welling in my heart—it makes me childish and immature.)
     I sat thinking this way when I felt Belle Lambert's step. It seems to me as if Belle had learned the deaf-and-dumb alphabet for the sole pleasure of being able to tell me things that were unpleasant! She came along the porch and sat down beside me, taking my hand in hers; I knew, by her clammy fingers, that something disagreeable was coming. “Why have you not gone to the picnic?” I asked.
     “I have no heart to go, since I have heard this dreadful news,” she spelled out to me in her stupid, precise way.
     Unresponsive, I waited; but there was no use in that; she was bound to tell me even if I had asked her not to.
     “I suppose your mother has explained it to you,” she went on.
     “About this dreadful sale of the mountain. All the trees are to be cut down and sent to the pulp-mills to make paper of. Such a desecration!”
     It made me angry. “They cannot desecrate the mountain!” I said.
     “But they will.—Please use your fingers; you know I can't understand your speech.—These lumber companies are absolutely ruthless. I don't think that I shall care to come here any more, with that hideous bare hill looming at the end of the valley. How glad you must be that you can't see!”
     I did not try to answer; all my strength was concentrated in keeping the tears back from my eyes.
     So my Brother must also suffer; all the youth and beauty of his life, too, must be swept away. “I must go back into the house,” I told her at last.
     “Oh, very well; if you don't need company, of course I sha’n’t stay! I thought that you would be lonely when I saw them all going.”
     “Did you stay at home on my account?”
     There was quite a long pause, then she took my fingers and put them to her lips. “No, I didn't stay on your account,” she said, in short puffing breaths; “I stayed in order to drive over to Moose River with your friend when he comes back on the eleven-o'clock train. I think you don't quite realize that—that—he and I are very dear to each other. I have felt for some time that you ought to be told.” Then she went away.
     I did not believe her, but I was angry, very angry, and as soon as her steps ceased on the boards of the porch I hurried into the house. Catching up my hat, I ran out of the back door and began to climb the steep path that leads to the pasture behind the cottage, where they always allow me to go by myself.
     I knew very well what Belle Lambert wanted me to understand, but I also knew that there was no truth in it. From the beginning it has been plain to me that he couldn't endure her—one doesn't need sight or hearing for a thing like that; and so, by the time I had climbed to the flat rock at the top of the hill, Belle and her lies had faded from my memory. I sat down and turned my face to the end of the valley, where I knew the Giant was lying still in the sunshine. In silence his mighty presence hailed me across the intervening space.
     “Shall you mind,” I called back to him, “when the youth and the beauty, and the flower and leaf of life have been shorn away —shall you mind?”
     And the mountain answered: “Not to mind were cowardly. In the vast ages that have gone I have learned to mind: to mind and not despair. Fire has swept over me and left me ruddy and scarred, with blackened tree trunks standing stark, signalling the swampy, evil places that have been my hidden disgrace. Three times have the heavens opened, and all my pines and birches, my hemlocks and my beeches, were swept to destruction in the floods. My children and my children's children have been cut down to warm the households in the valley; they have carried the sails of great ships across the seas; they have been tortured into strange shapes for the common use of little man. I have borne them and lost them and borne them again; but ruin cannot touch me, for in my heart the seeds of fresh life slumber always. Think of this and be steadfast.”
     “But it is hard,” I said. “It is hard.”
     “It is hard, for pain is always new and grief never grows old,” the mountain answered. “Yes, it is hard.”
     “Have I strength to endure?” I asked.
     “Wait,” said the mountain. “Wait—and trust a little longer.”
     The hot sun was burning on my hands; I rose and moved about a little, never leaving the landmarks that I could easily recognize by touch. I could not be quite unhappy, for Belle had told me that he was coming back, and as I waited I felt some one climbing from the direction of the cottage. I knew who it was.
     He came and sat down beside me. “Are you talking with your mountain?” he spelled into my hand.
     “How did you know?”
     “It seems natural—you two,” he answered.
     My heart beat fast. “They are going to cut away all the trees, the streams will dry up, and the sides be all bare and hideous,” I told him.
     “No, they are not,” he answered.
     “But you don't know. They have sold it to the pulp-mills.”
     “But they haven't! That is what took me away. I have bought the mountain.”
     “The whole mountain?”
     “‘The whole mountain.’ Yesterday evening, after I went back to my room from your house. I read of it in the newspaper, and this morning the first thing I hurried away. There was no time to lose and I knew you would understand. I have seen your face turned towards that mountain day after day—you take comfort in it—I wasn't going to have a tree on it touched.”
     Without thinking, I rose to my feet and stretched out my arms. Silently I called across, “Do you hear?”
     And the mountain answered back to me, “I hear.”
     “Do you not rejoice?”
     “Little sister,” answered the mountain, “I rejoice in your joy.”
     Then I felt my hand taken. “I did not know that you cared so much. Will you let me give it to you?” he spelled.
     “Let you give me the mountain?”
     “Yes, for yours. Let me make you a deed of it so that you may own it forever.”
     “I cannot take it,” I said. “It would make you sorrowful to think of it—as mine.”
     “If you do not take it”—he made the letters hard on my hands—“if you do not take it, I shall sell it back to the pulp-mills.”
     “But I know that I am—repulsive—not to you only—to every one,” and I covered my face with my hands; but gently, gently I felt them drawn away.
     “What cruel person has given you this thought?” he spelled to me. “You are lovely, most lovely, to every one; foolish, sweet dear!” And drawing my fingers towards him, he placed them upon his lips.
     Then I knew why he had never done so before; but I cannot write what he said. I cannot, cannot write it!

“The Mountain” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in Harper's Weekly v. 51, no. 2615, February 2, 1907; reprinted in Dead Letters, and Other Pieces by Mary Tappan Wright, edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.

The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2008 by Brian Kunde.

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1st web edition posted 4/2/2008
This page last updated 4/2/2008.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.