After People, the Nobody Zone Thirsts for Conversation

DEADPAN PLAZA—The only conversation to be heard anymore is the babble of water. Bubbly, free-flowing, and digressive—the discourse is anything but dry, but speech no longer does the work it used to. Water talks to itself of itself for itself. The water wheel of meaning and connotation has become a ferris wheel without passengers, going round and round for nothing.

In an otherwise silent world, the conversation of water achieves new fluency. It rushes into new places beyond the mainstream, permeates pockets and fissures and small, dry zones previously considered unworthy of mention. But here, at the parched threshold of the unknown, the conversation stops. It has blundered into a forbidden, cordoned-off subject. Water is for the moment reticent. Bottled up. (Cupped up, actually—only open-ended containers are of any use here in the Nobody Zone.) It may look like your typically quiet, post-people scene, but hydraulic pressure is mounting.

Caution! Evidence of humanity—quenched or still thirsting—left behind, leaving in its wake the perpetual question of whether half-full or half-empty. Here sits a vessel with no one around to consume its life-giving contents. To where has the drinker disappeared? Upon what quest has this individual embarked?

Perhaps the drinker went this way, along this sight line…but, no—the way here is barred. Escape from this state of mind (or thirst?) is blocked again by an ominous set of black teeth—a gaping black maw of wrought iron chompers. In the distance we see merely a glimmer of light, an uncertain glimpse illuminating a possible path to liberation from the seemingly unending aridity of this current existence.

It’s just one impasse after another now that the drinker has passed on. Will anything come to pass again? The maw with wrought iron chompers is the first of many to fall silent. The ducts and corridors, the pipelines and passageways all dry out, joining together to form a barren but elaborately reticulated throat, a prison for all that goes unsaid.

Water remains motionless, keeps its thoughts to itself. Back on the verge of a forbidden subject the hydraulic pressure has been mounting this whole time. The plastic cup is sweating on the inside. Who will break this terrible, thirsting silence?

Not far from the sweating plastic cup, a storm drain has begun to look itchy among tufts of dry patchy grass. It feels sand hot on the back of its tongue and thirsts for the deluge.

The drain and its surrounding basin are indeed dry. It hasn’t rained in these parts for months. And yet we know water is still around here somewhere, for someone (or rather, something) appears to have drunk half a cup’s worth of it before absconding. Perhaps the water is now trickling deep underground through ancient aquifers inaccessible to these thirsty plants rooted in the upper surface soil. Yes, yes…and if we could just take a peek down into that storm drain we might find the answer we seek. So here goes…

Traveling through the labyrinthine network of aging drainage tunnels—that reticulated throat of the city— we suddenly emerge out into daylight again and encounter an unexpected sight. Here scattered on the ground ahead has the water finally revealed itself. And yet…no longer in liquid form. Instead it is frozen into cubes. How bizarre. What could this mean…this transmogrification from liquid to solid…does it portend a radical change beyond even our admittedly formidable capacity to fathom? One hopes so, for the beauty of the varying shades of blue-green tinting these cubes is a wonder to behold.

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The Immaculate

Take for example the precise slant of the hat upon my head. Could such a ravishing angle have invented itself?

What is your name?

I am called The Immaculate. You may call me Mac, if that’s easier.

If you’ll pardon the observation, Mac, your appearance is certainly less than immaculate. How have you come by such an incongruous moniker?

I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. There is no inch of myself that has not been planned to the last detail, that I have not adorned, festooned, and emblazoned to the utmost. Take for example the precise slant of the hat upon my head. Could such a ravishing angle have invented itself? Now that you’ve noticed the angle, could you imagine any other in its place? Furthermore there is nothing about the man beneath the finery either, not my deportment, nor my character, nor my sensibility, that has not received the same attention, all of it quite thoroughly tweaked and tricked out. And should I seem somewhat . . . like a human birthday cake—for I once overheard a young, observant girl say this of me in the street—if you find yourself cloyed by so much personal fuss and filigree, perhaps allow your eyes a smaller nibble. The Immaculate was not meant to be gobbled down all at once.

I see. And what line of work are you in, Mac? Are these your normal workaday clothes? One could surmise they present some semblance of a uniform.

I do not work, though I’m hardly unemployed. It’s the duty of The Immaculate to be present at all times or places of importance. To be spotted in front of a theatrical opening as lords and ladies swish by en route to their seats. To make myself available by hovering at the edge of a press conference of grave significance. To station myself somewhat in front of the door of a department store upon the advent of the holiday sale. Yes, this is a uniform I wear. Very good. You are more perceptive than you at first seemed. It is a uniform for one, a livery of very high office, and must therefore be perfect in every point. On occasion I do have to trade out my bow if it begins to sag, but that’s very rare—it’s a bleak day indeed when my ebullient bow thinks of sagging.

I’m not sure ‘ebullient’ is the term I’d use to describe it, but I do concede that this bow of yours is not easy to ignore. Is there a story behind that particular component of your uniform that you’d care to share with our (certainly by now) captivated audience?

Certainly. There is no part of me that does not come with a story, to add significance and color.

There is a married couple who lives in a large house above Slew Street. They are prolific and have added to their account fourteen children and a songbird. If the missus has a favorite I can only think it is the songbird, for every morning she sways in front of the window and sings to it. Behind her, her husband and children, all plump and red-cheeked, talk and move with maximum haste making ready for the day. From the street below, beside a popular news stand, I oft enjoy this simple domestic scene framed so charmingly by the window.

One day as I approached my post, I witnessed a moving crew emerging from the rear of the Slew Street home. The mover-men were hefting a giant bed—the couple’s marriage bed, it could only be. There in the alley they abandoned it, with what future plan I do not know, and drove away in their loud stinking truck.

Well! What a desecration, to leave such an intimate fixture of family life propped against an alley wall! Feeling aggrieved and drawn off my track, I strode into the alley to make an inspection.

Why the love nest had been discarded was only too clear. Many of the springs had collapsed. The mattress was misshapen and its striped ticking was blotched all over with an irregular pattern of brown, ring-like stains. The mottled motif was quite involved. I took it in from many angles, at first bemused but then with a growing sense of excitement. It was, in truth, mesmerizingly beautiful. I could not appraise the mattress highly enough. It was a masterpiece.

An elation filled me, which I can only call “Art.” My heart raced. It was as though I’d been pulled here, into this alley and towards the mattress, by magnetic attraction. A great concentration of creative power was centered here. Yes! After all, was this not the site upon which fourteen lives had been conceived? Fourteen living souls—what artist’s atelier or writer’s garret could be said to have produced so much?

With my extremities all a-tingle, I could no longer resist. I rushed at the mattress, gripped the frayed seam of its ticking, and ripped it free. A flash of white feathers stole my breath away. White feathers heaping over my spatz. White feathers floating up and around me. White feathers swaying in the alley like dandelion seeds. I was immersed. And in the white feather swirl I swear I heard, distinctly, our missus’ morning song. I had penetrated to the core of that melody; I knew it now, from inside.

Behold The Immaculate in living rapture. This is the meaning of the bow, a gift I’ve unlaced for you.

For, you see, it was from the mottled mattress ticking that I later formed the decoration I wear round my neck. The material is rather stiff, so stiff I must minimize my yes-ing and no-ing to save my chin from being constantly chafed. The rest of my uniform I starch furiously—when it rains there is a faint smell of potato about me, which is delicious—but my bow has never wanted a drop of starch. My bow is ever a thing of substance, standing to meet all occasions. Except when it doesn’t, which, as I’ve said, is very rare.

Well, that is quite a tale, Mac. I’m not familiar with the area around Slew Street, nor can I find it on a local map. Are those your usual stomping grounds? And do you perhaps live in a dumpster nearby?

Slew Street is easy to find. Go to Crag Top and head south towards Shatter Alley. You can’t get there without meeting a prolix swerve of pavement lined with news and flower stands. That’s Slew Street. It may go by another name on your map. I’ve taken it upon myself to rename many of the drably named streets and landmarks of my city.

Yes, I’m often on Slew Street, but Slew Street is merely one of my many habitual locales. I make it a point to distribute myself as universally as possible. This requires me to tear from district to district at demon speed. I am quite a vision with my ornate coattails flapping behind me like a dragon’s wings. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a Napoleonic proclivity for marching or I should be constantly run off my feet.

As for where I “live,” I can only be said to live in the street, for that is the place I am most seen and appreciated by those who are equipped to see and appreciate me. As for where I sleep or base my operations, I’ve had many places over the years, and I daresay a few of them have indeed been dumpsters. But err not! A dumpster is never a dumpster by the time I lay myself inside it.

My habitation must be as exquisite as The Immaculate himself. Much can be accomplished with bottle caps and tinfoil. Ribbons can be fashioned from a good many materials, as I have already demonstrated. I never think of embarking on such a project until I’m already weary and it’s often wretched work. By the time I’ve finished transforming the dumpster it’s nothing short of a palace, and I collapse into it with a resounding, metal shudder—all energy has been expended for beauty, none for comfort. It’s a shame that my habitations have not been preserved. I would think they’d make a fine exhibition, shown all together.

Indeed, your bedazzled dumpsters do sound like wonderful art pieces, Mac. If I had any gallery connections I’d surely put you in touch with them. You must be a true artist to sacrifice your own personal comfort like that in favor of a higher level of impractical decor. 

As much as I’d like to continue probing your psyche for more shiny nuggets of enlightenment, though, I think we’re going to have to bring this conversation to a close. It has been quite an experience meeting with you and learning about your curious ways. Are there any parting words of wisdom you’d like to share with our audience before you melt away into the gloaming?

Yes. To your admirable audience, a select and sophisticated coterie, I’m sure, I would counsel: If, by chance, you see me emerge before you from the sea of people on the street, do not let novelty be the beginning and end of your experience. Take me in. Little by little. Be patient.

You may start anywhere. With the inclination of my top hat or the poise of my neck-bow, with the unfailing dignity of my facial expression or any other exacting element of my personality. Do this and you will be amply rewarded. As I pass by, much will occur to you that has never occurred before, and yet you will sense that you’ve perceived only the merest fraction. As I vanish again into the human tide, you will feel a loss. You’ll wish we had longer together. But as now I slip from view, be rapturous. The Immaculate exists! There can be no doubt! For a moment your field of vision was filled to overflowing with him, with everything given its proper proportion, everything as it should be.

In this world where all colors are grayed together, where every force is blunted by its opposite to the point of aimlessness, there appears, from time to time, something pure. The Immaculate is unattainable, yes, but take comfort. Now that you’ve seen The Immaculate, he will always be with you.

After People, a Toadstool Grows at the Gate of Paradise

Mycology in the Nobody Zone

VANISHED HILL PARK—Don’t be fooled by the diminutive nature of the guardian sitting atop this slab of dualist symbolism. Flanked by two stones left as offerings by invisible visitors, this simple Taoist gnome-monk is the ambassador for a magical place of peace and tranquility—a necessary retreat from the surrounding urban chaos. Yet it is a lonely existence for the monk on the monument. No one lingers long at the gateway to paradise. And so as he sits gripping his precious toadstool he pines for companions left behind in what feels like another lifetime. He wonders what adventures he’s missed since setting off on this solo journey of self-reflection so many years ago.

How disappointed he’d be if he saw them now. In the absence of people, the gnome’s former companions have reverted to the old feuds and factions. In the dark portion of the Nobody Zone, the small folk have again begun their “game,” whose rules constantly change, and is therefore not really a game. It’s only a game in the sense that no consequence will ever come of it. But where do the ever-evolving rules come from? They seem to well up, daemonic, from some atavistic source deep in the earth. The small folk are the playthings of the dark. The dark lusts for color, so they have become brazenly colorful.

Now the small folk lie scattered among the crevices and voids of the dark place. An air of nausea and dissipation sets in, but they continue to play, maniacally. The game has grown gravely serious, because in the dark the game is all there is.

But things are no better over in the lighted portion of the Nobody Zone. Here the wooden soldiers have phalanxed themselves like the pipes of an organ. From shortest to tallest and back to shortest again, they are a troop well assembled; every one of them knows his place. But there’s no straying from this configuration. The light has caused a hard, plain clarity; a space devoid of ambiguity and, hence, possibility. So unlike the dark, whose daemon was one of constant changeability, the light produces a daemon of grueling persistence. Fixity.

And this is also atavistic, for in each wooden soldier lives the remnant of a deeply rooted tree. There’s a yearning there, to extend in a single sunward direction. But the soldiers’ mouths have never tasted nut or kernel. They’ve had no opportunity to discover themselves. They will never move or grow another inch, because in the light the existing order is all there is.

It is true that in the light there is order—the order of natural law. Certain lines within that body of law dictate that all life ends, breaks down, and thus—out of death and deterioration—provides sustenance for new life. The wooden soldiers stand unaware of this, though that remnant of tree inside each one still ripples as a ghost of its arboreal ancestor. And so perhaps the taste of an ancient “kernel” does yet linger at the back of their gaping wooden maws. What if this taste were to suddenly sharpen, then to stimulate the hardened phloem buried in those soldiers’ sclerotic limbs and activate that long-suppressed spark of life?

As we now know, the rules to the “game” never shed their dynamic nature. The Nobody Zone is a seemingly random network of interlaced liminal spaces. While we have established there is order (e.g., natural law) in the light, this order does not necessarily extend beyond the reach of that light. And while the contrast of disorder governs the dark areas of the Zone, what of the other fractal spaces in this place? Is there perhaps an overlap of order and disorder to be found in the gloaming?

Awakened from their slumber by such ineffable energies the source of which we are forever wont to question, the soldiers leave their pedestals in unison and march off away from the light toward the edges of their own reality. Traversing a line unnoticed by their forward-staring eyes, they are suddenly assimilated into the crepuscular sector of the Nobody Zone, where the laws of physics kneel to the “laws” of absurdity. A realm where states of matter are fluid and dematerialization is routine—where dark and light mingle their individual aims and objectives into oft-monstrous hybrid purposes. Here, having followed their atavistic instincts, the soldiers have (literally) returned to their roots, though for how long remains uncertain.

Root and rhizome return to spongy, alluvial soils. They interlace and flex, turning up a witch’s roil of growth and decay. The soldiers clack their last salutes as their formation turns to mulch. The small folk scream and are forcefully demarcated. In the crepuscular sector, both and neither a battlefield or playground, the old companions have collapsed into discrete, orderly piles of chaos. The stench is incredible. They lie there, inert, ready to feed whatever opportunistic, detritus-loving species comes next.

Back at the empyrean gateway, the gnome-monk can feel the Taoist symbolism hugging itself more tightly than before. In emulation, he presses his precious toadstool to his belly and decides there’s no reason to be lonely anymore. He is the toadstool and the toadstool is him.

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After People, A Bird Reflects

Migrations of a Reversible Bird

ZEROTH AVE.—On the empty sidewalk of an unused street, a bird leans against the foot of a red fence and reflects upon the new, people-less situation. In other times the bird might’ve perched above a minibar or over a wicker reading chair. There was so much to reflect upon then. All the comings and goings. Now, settled at the foot of the red fence, it reflects endlessly upon a car that has lost its hubcap. The bird has been here for days. No one is coming for the car.

Reflecting upon the car, the bird’s thoughts alight here and there but never arrive anywhere. The bird realizes it’s lost its tail feathers—its thoughts can travel, but there’s no navigation anymore, no geography, no point. The bird, which was originally red, has begun to feel blue.

What would be most welcome is a change of some kind, progress from one state to another, even a waning or deterioration would be fine, but the bird has that uneasy, gloaming feeling of neither this or that. Before the red bird can feel all the way blue the emotion pauses. The bird waits, purple, on the brink of opening its beak; not to cry out at some bright new arrival, but rather, to swallow a birdcry out of the graying air.

The bird, now standing tall and ridiculous, considers: perhaps what is needed is a simpler, more elemental transmogrification. A regression or devolving, if you will, back to the basics. As an enormous blue rooster I feel too obvious, it thinks. People, when they were around, were always gawking, angling for photo ops. The rooster feels self-conscious. It craves a more anonymous existence. While not opposed to remaining in the public eye (what’s left of it), it would feel more comfortable if its appearance was less compelling. Aesthetically it would still like to retain a pleasing form, but one that the random roving eye might simply encounter and pass over—the eye’s owner inwardly satisfied to observe—before moving on to more glamorous sights. The rooster rocks back on its back claws, dreaming of some elegant geometric shape.

The bird forgets itself. It has taken the shape of forgetting and so nothing happens for a very long time. The universe goes about its quiet business. Spheres putter in circles. Experience is rounded down to a smooth, lunar zero. Hummdrummm, says the universe. Where has that bird flown off to?

Eventually, from some instinctive tendency, the bored universe begins to dream. It dreams of a verdant wood. Broad leaves open. Stands of trees arise. Sunlight dapples the understory. The forgotten bird begins to feel a warmth. The dappled wood is warming it; with its warmth the wood makes it more and more a bird. At its center, the half-remembered bird, experiences a rumble. It’s feeling peckish. It can’t stay in this shape much longer.

The bird emerges completely from the simple forgetful shape, and opens its beak. A plea for sustenance. Mother, fill me. But when the bird opens its eyes it finds Mother Wood spitting mad. Propped on her crutches, Mother Wood hisses furiously at the little open beak. She has become enraged by the act of creation. The only product of need is more need. Little street bird, Mother Wood doesn’t want you.

Skeletonized and rejected by its woody mother the bird wobbles off in search of solace. When abandoned at birth—before sensations even enter consciousness—an internal untethering occurs. So, following the only instinct it yet knows the bird wanders back into the oneiric woods of its origins—a place of mystery and the unexpected.

For long days and nights it travels the forest floor, pecking aimlessly at the leaf litter and poking its beak into every crevice it encounters. What is it searching for? Not even the bird itself knows. Call it a compulsion if you want, but be wary of so-called ‘diagnoses,’ for labels always belie the complexity of what lies beneath them.

Finally one bright morning following a particularly treacherous night of travel, the bird weaves on unsteady pipestem legs into a vast clearing at the center of which towers a massive double-trunked tree. Upon seeing this tree a sudden clarity blooms in the bird’s feeble still-forming brain. It skitters toward the tree with newfound energy and pauses, hovering before a stone tablet embedded in the surrounding earth. Straight ahead, in a hollow at the tree’s base, stands a small door. The bird quivers, electric charges running beneath its feathers, stretches its neck forward and taps upon the door with its sturdy bill. After a few long minutes the door pops open and the bird springs forward.

(Though no one is in the forest to hear it, a faint tinkling of shattered glass rings out as darkness falls.)

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To mingle with a perhaps ineffable portion of another’s inner life.

Why collaborate?

SS: To attempt to create something beyond my own limitations.

NG: I’m all out of good ideas.

SS: To partially separate the self from the creative process.

NG: All this thinking has made me lonely.

SS: To mingle with a perhaps ineffable portion of another’s inner life.

NG: Creating with only oneself is like walking over coals before they’ve been lit. Where there’s no danger there’s no adventure.

ND: Any singular viewpoint can only see so far, even if it tries to move around a lot. Getting another perspective into the mix amplifies possibilities beyond what one may be able to devise on one’s own, gets past individual blocks, allows unexpected solutions. There’s a risk, in collaboration, of ending up in a middle ground where neither participant’s idiosyncrasies come through. This could even be desired, perhaps, depending on the project. But careful collaboration that allows each side space to experiment, instead, can have an exponential effect on creative options and lead to the most fruitful results.

Name a few anagrams of the word collaboration.


  • O, anti-local orb!
  • coloration lab
  • Noir cabal tool
  • Brain loot cola
  • aortic balloon
  • An orca bit Lolo
  • Not a labor coil
  • oral icon bloat
  • Boo, I call on art
  • tonal cobra oil

Would the work of a ‘hive mind’ such as in Star Trek’s Borg be considered a collaboration, even though the individual drones were assimilated against their wills?

SS: This is an interesting situation to consider. The definition of ‘collaborate’ does not mention free will as a prerequisite of working together, so technically creations of a ‘hive mind’ such as that shared by the Borg could be considered collaborations. However, when one considers the ‘collaborative’ assimilation of an entire species it kind of feels like that act violates the spirit of collaboration. Another consideration, though: since the second definition of collaborate is ‘to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country’ (Am. Her. Dict., 2nd College Ed.), one could also rightly say a Borg drone that has been assimilated from one species is ‘collaborating’ with other Borg drones when it then participates in further assimilation of its fellow species. So, perhaps we are witnessing dual collaboration in this case.

ND: Colonialism is not a collaboration. Slavery is not a collaboration. Mandated assimilation is not collaboration.

NG: Sure! The importance of free will has been greatly overestimated. However, the Borg’s real problem is that they’re drones. If the Borg are all identical to each other then there’s no hope for collaboration, since it’s the differences between collaborators that are key, even more so than the commonalities. As I vaguely recall, Picard had some smidge of humanity that made him different from the Borg and allowed him to break free from their gray collaboration. In that case, it was a big tragedy the day the Borg lost him.

What contexts does collaboration work best in? And when would it not work so well?

NG: The best collaboration would occur in a thick, luminescent medium yet to be invented—let’s call it tonal cobra oil—a vibrant liquid wherein every sight and sound and movement is seen and heard and felt. The worst collaboration would happen in the dark vacuum of space where no one can hear you scream or would care if you did.

SS: I think it works best in contexts that are: (1) freely entered into; (2) characterized by flexible expectations; (3) permitted to fail but are still generally committed to producing a tangible outcome.

I don’t think collaboration works well when: (1) conditions are too restrictive; (2) individual collaborators have unrealistic and/or uncommunicated expectations; (3) collaborators do not share a common vision, no matter how unformed it may be in the beginning.

ND: In general, experience suggests it is smoothest when there’s a well-delineated separation of spheres. Working closely on all aspects inevitably leads to more conflict, but in well-attuned collaborators who can fight a point, then concede it graciously if needed, this can also be very effective at pushing a work that much further. But this may require a special kind of collaborator.

What is the personal cost of being misunderstood?

ND: Optimistically, being forced to refine one’s ideas. Pessimistically, having one’s ideas garbled by proximity. To be misunderstood is only to lose voice, however, if it is generalized to all potential listeners. Complex messages may necessitate some misunderstanding.

SS: I think the personal cost of being misunderstood can be quite high. If this is a chronic condition then it can seriously undermine one’s self-perception. If you perpetually feel misunderstood you may come to doubt everything you believe about yourself, even down to the most basic tenets of self-identity. I also think being misunderstood can have a negative impact on one’s creativity, either by altering or stultifying it. It can be difficult to subsist solely on internal validation. So if a person constantly feels like no one ‘gets’ the art they make on any level whatsoever or interprets the art in a way that is consistently contrary to the intent, then the person may alter their approach in an effort to be better understood, or perhaps worse yet, the person may abandon art altogether.

NG: There’s a shame to it, like you passed the ball but didn’t throw hard enough. Or you lost it in the bushes somewhere. Internalized shame is always a blow to one’s psychological autonomy.

Describe the world’s best marching band.

NG: First off, the uniforms shouldn’t be identical but should complement each other in some way. Probably all their epaulets and braids and gold buttons are varied according to instrument. Uniform color choices: Melon, puce, orange, brick. Anything but cop blue. And the marching is not exactly in unison. The drumline marches slightly ahead of or behind the beat, depending on the mood. And the higher register instruments march at cut time so that the flutes march four steps for every one step taken by the sousaphone, which allows the flutes to circle the sousaphone as they cross the parade ground like songbirds swirling around an elephant.

ND: A deep rainforest dawn chorus. All marchers independently pursue parallel and often conflicting courses, but the result is richer and more endlessly unexpected than any coordinated force.

SS: It consists of only drummers playing drums of all shapes and sizes in various parallel syncopated rhythms. The drummers march in concentric circles.

Now Available: A Set of Lines

A Set of Lines

A Set of Lines: a novel by S. D. Stewart

Last night I drew all night. I copied the images from the textbook and then I drew them again freehand—I made them move on the page, lengthened the lines and darkened the centers.

The tree, the river, the old textbook—a triptych with shifting borders hangs in a place where dreams and memories intertwine. Omission and loss haunt those who live here, suspended as they are in an endless struggle to connect. Contracting and expanding as it progresses, the narrative of their existence ever-circles around a shrouded core.

With cover design and interior illustrations by Nate Dorr, who since 2017 has been quietly depicting the beauty of decaying, mutated biospheres in his Disaster Landforms series.

Interior design and layout wizardry by Nathan Grover.

Published May 2020

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