1) The Boy Covered In Soot

When I was a very little boy, I used to ask my Aunty Mina one question so very vital to me at that time. It was a question I still struggled with, always at the back of my mind. The question never left me alone; no, not once.

“Aunt Mina…”

“Yes, darling one.” She answered my call with her usual cheerful smile. She grabbed my little fingers and squeezed them securely inside her warm palm. At this time of the day,the traffic was busy and we were waiting to cross the road. From where I stood, I could see the front gate of what was to be my school for the next 6 years.

Understandably, I was feeling nervous on the first day of school. In fact if I recall correctly, I swear that I was feeling quite sick at that time. But even as a child, I knew the concept of bravery…a concept that went something like this – If you don’t have any, then be honest about it.

At least you would be an honest coward.

How clever I was to have come up with such a novel concept of bravery.

I was, without a doubt, a clever, honest coward!

So with that piece of wit firmly rooted in my mind, I had no compunction about letting everyone in on my feelings about being separated from Hassan and Ali, only to be thrust into this private school when BOTH my best friends in the world were sent to the public school instead.

What was it about the word ‘private’? It sounded deuced lonely to me. Expensive too, said Aunt Mina, always an advocator for economic efficiency and social equality.

My father, of course, ignored her completely.

Aunt Mina was my father’s only sister. She was in her second year of law school and was a passionate advocator of ‘anti-everything’ from anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, anti-Zionism…- like I said, anti-everything. My father loved it when Aunt Mina scowled at one of his many teasing…it was to be his not-so-secret pleasure to tease his sister, incessantly. Aunt Mina, not wanting to lose in any battle of words, would come back at my father with one of those big words I could not even pronounce, which made my father laughed even more.

You see? I thought my father was really quite clever. Well, he was a heart surgeon, which might explain that fact, though I really didn’t know how that should explain it….my father simply told me that it did. But the reason I thought my father was quite clever was because he really did not have to say anything to win any argument with Aunt Mina – who I also thought was quite clever, just not as clever as my father, you see. All my father had to do was laugh merrily at everything Aunt Mina said; thus she ended up fuming and stomped both her feet before walking away with her head shaking in disbelief.

At which point my father would wink at me and said confidently; his voice full of great wisdom, “Remember this, my son. To know the winner of a debate, one only has to see who remains at the battlefield and who walks away from the scene. Remember son, one never, ever walks away from a battle even if one has no other tools with which to fight. Endurance and perseverance are the very thing that wins war.”

“Yeah. Endurance is very impressive. It is very impressive seeing how one can endure and persevere at laughing off a good argument when one has no other intelligent comeback worth to be uttered.” Aunt Mina would poke her head back, even though she had just left. I had an inkling that my father knew that would happen. Again, he laughed, so intelligently.

“I simply refused to let you corrupt my nephew’s pure mind. And that’s why I even bother to disgrace myself to be within ten miles radius of your presence.”

At which point my mother would intervene and said, “Too late, I think the corruption has already begun, taken root in his mind. Zachary now thinks that whenever I ask him to recite his Quranic verses, he could laugh it off and get away with it.”

But anyway, let’s get back to my being a clever honest coward. That is the whole point of this story, you see. We don’t want to miss the point now, do we?

Well, even a clever, honest coward had some pride. Even a clever, honest coward had some shame. Oh, the embarrassment of it all when Aunt Mina would NOT let me cross the street on my own!

Aunt Mina always grabbed my hand whenever we were waiting to cross the road. She didn’t know this, but it embarrassed the hell out of me. She told me that when I was four, I used to run across the road and got myself into a motor vehicle accident. That incident scared her shitless. She said, she would never trust me again.

I struggled valiantly to pull my hand out of her death grip. Couldn’t she see that my future colleagues across the road could see me? Couldn’t she see it?

I gave up when my bold struggle proved fruitless. I settled with giving her a pout and proceeded to ask her my one vital question that has been plaguing me all these while,as we were waiting for the traffic light to show a green man (Aunt Mina told me that we have to wait for the green man to appear before we could cross the road, in case you are wondering why we have to wait for the man).

“Why do people stare at me so much?” I asked her. Even as the question popped out of my mouth, I could see some people in the cars gave a 90 degrees head turn to catch a glimpse of me and my Aunt Mina.

Shouldn’t they be paying attention to the road? Shouldn’t they?

“That’s because you are very cute, sweetheart. You are the noor of my eyes and you are so very handsome. You are my little dark knight.” Aunt Mina accentuated all her words with intermittent hard squeezes on my hand. “You asked me this already, young man.”

Yes, and I liked hearing the answer each and every time. She said my skin was as dark as the velvet sky at night and my teeth were sparklingly white, brighter than the full moon in the middle of Ramadhan, and with such compelling combination of striking features that I possessed, how could anyone resist a second look every once in a while?

One time, Aunt Mina even burst into tears trying to convince me about the beauty of my person. That my big round, dark eyes were the stuff girls can only dream of (I wasn’t too thrilled about being compared with girls but I sensed how it was meant to be a compliment and therefore kept my mouth shut). That my full lips was such exquisite thing that others could only obtain through a dose of bee sting, that  I should be thankful that I need not go to such extreme pain to obtain my sharp features.

Her extreme show of emotion puzzled me. She needn’t have burst into tears when she launched a tirade about my cuteness. Did she think I did not believe her? That I doubted her word?

I believed her totally. I always did.

So, to get her to stop crying and to convince her that I believed her, I told her this, “I like my face too. And I like the way my eyes sparkle when the whole room turns pitch black while the rest of me is invisible. Why, my eyes are even bigger than yours, Aunt Mina. And yours is really big.”

Aunt Mina stopped crying, then, and she rubbed my head and ruffled my hair. “I hope, I haven’t turned you into a conceit, now.” She then said, dryly.

Anyway, that happened a few months ago. Since then, I have asked the same kind of question to her every time we got stared at (like right now while we were waiting to cross the road), and each time she would make me believe that all those staring were a perfectly normal reaction to a beauty so unequaled by any creature.

Aunt Mina held my hand even tighter as we were crossing the road. I could see…- no, I could feel – the eyes of the drivers and the passengers of the stopping cars, that feast on our bodies. They would never stop staring – these white people.

I was just too cute; I had no choice but to conclude.

With that conclusion firmly placed in mind, I jauntily ran, pulling Aunt Mina with me, towards the school gate which was looking very busy and crowded with parents and school kids passing by in a rush.

Excitement permeated all my senses. Excitement in the form of wailing cries by the kids who refused to enter the school gate; and excitement in the laughing acceptance of newfound independence by the more self-composed kids.

If only I could cry and laugh to express my own excitement…

I did neither…

And I did not understand why I did not. Why I could not. Was it because I felt too little? Too little fear to cry and too little exhilaration to laugh.

Or was it because I felt too much? That to cry and laugh would not express my feelings enough.

When we arrived at the school gate, a stern looking woman asked Aunt Mina whether she had my registration forms. She glanced at the bottom of the letter and told me to line up at one particular booth where a bunch of other children were gathered. Aunt Mina told me that those children were to be my homeroom mates and the lady in the pink top and striped pants would be my homeroom teacher.

Aunt Mina walked me to the pretty lady – even prettier than my Aunt Mina -who greeted her warmly. She introduced herself as Miss Pike and told Aunt Mina how all kids were to be gathered at the school compound first before the homeroom teacher would take them on a tour of the school.

Aunt Mina then smiled her thanks and accompanied me towards my homeroom mate. She pointed towards the empty seat next to a small girl with a short ponytail. After I have taken my seat, Aunt Mina crouched down and rubbed my hair, as she usually did, which again embarrassed me.

“I am going to my class now, okay. I think mommy will pick you up this afternoon for an ice-cream, something to look forward to if you behaved yourself good. I might join you if my class finishes early and then you can tell your mummy and me about your first day at school, okay?  I know you will have a good time at school, even without Hassan and Ali. Trust me.”

“And how do you know that?”

Aunt Mina rolled her eyes. “Because I am your aunt. And I am very clever.”

I couldn’t help feeling a bit forlorn as I watched Aunt Mina disappeared through the school gate, passed the stern looking woman.

Now, I was left all alone….except for these bunch of little strangers whose skin were so white that I stood out like a sore thumb. I could feel the staring eyes of the rest of my homeroom mates.

That alone, was enough to convince me that my whole day would be ruined.

I thought I had had enough staring on the streets. But one minute into the private school scene, I found out that my colleagues too were struck dumb by the beauty of my dark ebony skin.

There was nothing private about a private school.

The insolent, pony-tailed girl who was sitting next to me even dared giving me a stare with a frown on her forehead. So, I stared back at her, eyeball to eyeball. Her green eyes clashed with my black ones.

Her eyes narrowed sharply. Her nostrils flaring. Her lips firmed. Her eyes locked on mine, looked utterly menacing.

With a sigh of resignation, I gave up the staring match. I was faithful to my principle of being a clever honest coward. Besides, I was never good with staring matches of any kind. My father and my mother won every time we stared at each other!

Look, I knew that I had a pair of really big eyes; the stuff of dreams among girls, Aunt Mina had said. But I could not possibly bear being stared at so openly, the way this girl with a ponytail was doing. I would be most happy to oblige her and swap eyes with her if only to stop all the staring, but I just could not compute how I could give her my beautiful eyes while still able to retain my sight.

Well, my father did tell me how we could donate organs, especially the heart. Besides, he had made that his profession. But he didn’t mention diddlysquat about the possibility ofswapping organs. My father said, “No swapping. You can only give your organs when you no longer have any use of it.”

“And when would that be?” I asked him.

“When you die.”

The memory of that conversation settled my dilemma.

I shook my head, vehemently. I turned to the pony-tailed girl and told her quite firmly, “Forget it! I am not going to die just so you can have my eyes.”

She kept staring at me. Only this time her jaw swung wide open. And I could see her non-existent front teeth. I gasped in horror.

“What happened to your teeth? We should have two at the top front. Like mine, here. See?” I smiled to show her my sparkling white teeth, made even more startling against my dark skin.

The girl’s stare intensified. In fact the width of her eyeball grew even wider, if that was even possible. It was weird but she looked as though she was fuming with anger.

As to why that was the case, I could not possibly imagine.

“Unless you say sorry to me, I am going to cry right now.” She gritted her teeth at me. It was a very scary sight. Especially, to a clever honest coward like me.

But I was deuced confused. Why should I say sorry to her? I wasn’t the one staring at her.

“Why should I say sorry?” By this time, you would know that I was a very curious child. I questioned every statement by everyone before I would produce my own answer or my own reply.

“You teased me about my teeth. And you sit next to me even though you knew you shouldn’t have sat next to me while looking dirty.”

I frowned. I guess, looking back, that was my first encounter with bizarre females outside my family members. That first day of school, I was thoroughly initiated to the irrationality of the opposite sex.

However, that first day of school also marked my evolution from being a clever honest coward to a mighty dark knight (without a brain, one might argue). But whatever it was, I was about to figure out that the day I met this girl with a ponytail was the day I would keep getting bouts of episodic courage which most of the time ended up in me getting into trouble.

But I fought back.

I refused to back down. There was something in her green eyes that made me go mad with anger. Of course, it was the way she stared. But also the way she was so confident that she would get what she wanted. It rankled.

“I did NOT tease you about your teeth. I only said, that you didn’t have the two front teeth at the top. Like I have.” I paused.  “And I am not dirty.”

“Yes you are. You are covered in soot. You are soo…black. I couldn’t possibly touch you.”

I looked at both my arms consciously. Confusion hazed my mind when I could not detect any traces of soot anywhere on my arms.

Where is the soot?” I asked her, cocking my head with confusion. “And why do you want to touch me?”

“It’s all over you, moron!” She spat. “And I didn’t say I want to touch you. I said I couldn t touch you.”

I gasped. No one had ever called me a moron in my whole life. I was always the clever devil who could get away with anything by laughing them off the way my father did. How could she have called me a moron?

“Why did you call me a moron?” My curiosity again aroused. Little did I know that she was bursting to tell me just why.

“Because you are,” She stated in the same confident manner that marked everything she said. Again it rankled. It rankled because it seemed to be that I was always the one with confusion and questions and she was always the one with clarity and answers.

I was very upset by that time. But my father’s words rang clearly in my mind. That I should never run from the scene of a battle. That I should remain at my place even with no other tools with which to fend off an opponent. That the one who remained would be the one who won.

Whether or not the ones who remained at the battle scene were dead or alive, I had forgotten to ask my father.

So like the true son of my father that I was, I began laughing at her in earnest. Truly berserk was I in my determination to annoy her that I simply pretended that I did not see the belligerence in her eyes. And for good measure, I even rubbed my stomach in glee. Furthermore, just to make sure she knew what I thought of her, just in case she was dense in the head which I had suspected she was, I said in between my laughter, “Look at that silly girl,”

By this time, she was well and truly furious. She breathed heavily and snapped at me, “If you don’t stop your laughing, I am going to cry NOW!!”

“So? Why should I care?” Oh, I felt so proud that I was able to say that and be as annoying as she was. My confidence was gaining its momentum. In fact, I was then wondering where did the idea that I was a coward come from? Surely, it was NORMAL for a kid like me to feel a little bit lost and nervous on the first day of school…but SURELY that should not be enough reason (or jus-ti-fi-ca-tion as Aunty Mina loved to say in her lawyer-like manner) to feel that I was a coward (clever and honest or otherwise).

Before I met her, I had always thought that I was mild mannered (which probably contributed to my twisted thinking that I was a coward, since cowards would be too scared to behave otherwise), especially since I always got what I want from the very moment I asked for something, that there was never a need to annoy anyone into agreeing with me. My two best friends in the world, Hassan and Ali, were forever nodding their heads in confirmation of whatever I said and they were always easily persuaded into all my brilliant schemes. There was never a need for me to annoy them this way. So, before meeting this curious beast with a ponytail, I had no reason to behave in any other way but mild.

But this snotty-nosed little girl had clearly asked for it. And I would die (not really, I was not that courageous yet) before I would let her terrorize me into silence.

So I kept on laughing.

“I am going to cry now!” She threatened me again.

But I just kept on flashing her my pearly white teeth, you know, as a subtle reminder to her lack of two. And as I remember this, I taunted, “Yeah, you are better off crying. Because it would be no good to smile without your front teeth.”

She let out a BIG!! FAT!! wail and kicked the chair in front of her in anger, which caused the white girl who was sitting on it to let out her own shriek as she fell down in a heap, with the blue chair on top of her.

By this time, my laughter abruptly ceased. I stared in horror as two white girls near my vicinity started screaming enthusiastically, one in distress and pain, and the other in anger and revenge.

I remember having a premonition. It was almost as though I got a crystal ball of my own to predict the outcome of this chaos. I just knew what the result of this fiasco was going to be. I would end up being the guilty party in this debacle, no matter how angelic and innocent I truly was.

Miss Pike rushed forward to the scene from hell and started looking at me accusingly. It wouldn’t have been more obvious if she didn’t just say what-have-you-done-now??

So, I automatically said, “It wasn’t my fault.”

Miss Pike ignored me and paid attention to ‘the girl-in-distress’ while simultaneously trying to calm ‘the-girl-in-anger’. The girl in distress was not in a lot of pain and she was all right as soon as Miss Pike removed the light plastic chair from on top of her and kissed both her tear-streaked rosy cheeks.

But the girl-in-anger was another matter. Since she didn’t have that much tears to begin with, she had decided to make up for it by letting a LOUD!!, EAR-SPLITTING scream in the misguided notion that her lungs were in need of some exercising. I looked at her antics and felt very, very annoyed…more annoyed than when my mother was too busy to tell me stories. More annoyed than when Aunt Mina refused to let go of my hand during road-crossing. More annoyed than when my parents decided to send me to this annoying private school. More annoyed than when Hassan and Ali were a bit hesitant in following my plans though at last they would agree eventually.

I was so annoyed. (Yes, my vocabulary was varied and impressive, indeed).

“Hush now, Rebecca,” Miss Pike said in a nice soothing voice to the girl-no-longer-so-distressed. “You are such a good girl. See? You haven’t cut yourself at all.”

Miss Pike turned to the girl-still-screaming-in-anger, and said, “Maria, kindly stop screaming while I attend to Rebecca.”

Maria let out a fake sob. “I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t possibly stop. He has not washed himself, He is all black and dirty and he is sitting next to me and he said bad things about my teeth.” Maria summarized all her complaints in one single breath which I reluctantly found quite impressive.

“I did NOT say bad things about your teeth. I just said you don’t have two big teeth on the front top!” I stood up with indignation (again copying my Aunty Mina’s lawyer-like intonation of speech).

“You did say bad things about my teeth! You did, you dirty liar”

“Did not!”

“Oh, you DID!! You said bad things about my teeth. You said that it would be no good to smile without my front teeth.”

Oh.

Maria, apparently, had a good memory. And it suddenly occurred to me that she might also have a lawyer for an aunty.

I swallowed.

“That was not saying bad things about your teeth.” I paused, thinking hard. “That was saying bad things about your smile.”

Miss Pike gasped, and covered her mouth. For a moment, it looked like she was about to laugh but then she removed her hand and all I could see was a firm line where her lips should have been. Her eyes narrowed at both of us.

“Enough, both of you!” She then turned to me and wagged her index finger at my face. “Zachary, it is not good to tease your friend about her teeth.”

My friend? My eyes widened. Since when??

This was getting to be a very confusing day for me from the very start. I was stared at throughout my walk from home to school; I was told that I was covered with soot which for all appearances must be some invisible soot; I was accused of saying bad things about someone’s teeth when all I did was saying bad things about someone’s smile …and…and the worst thing of it all, I was accused of being someone’s friend!!

“But, I didn’t say any bad things about her teeth!” And I am NOT her friend, I wanted to add.

Miss Pike looked at me sharply. “All right, not about her teeth. But you said bad things about her smile, didn’t you?”

“She shouldn’t believe what I said. Since she never smiled at me, she should know that I wouldn’t know how her smile looks like.”

Again Miss Pike gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. “Zachary!” She managed to say as she regained her self-composure. Her chin wobbled in the way that Aunt Mina’s would during the times when I said something obvious.

During those times Aunt Mina would usually say ‘Don’t be a clever devil with me, young man! You are not getting away from your punishment’

“It doesn’t matter whether she should believe you or not. You should never hurt each other’s feelings with unkind words. It’s bad, bad behavior.”

“She said that I was black and dirty. She hurts my feelings too.” I looked at Miss Pike, innocently.

Miss Pike’s jaw swung open. She turned to look at Maria who was now looking very grim. “Did you say Zachary was dirty?”

Maria shrugged. “Well, he hasn’t washed himself in years and years. Look at his skin. It’s black! He is covered in soot. Look at my skin and your skin. It’s different! I was just trying to tell him to wash himself before sitting next to me.”

“Maria, that’s not soot.”

“I don’t care what it is but he is dirty and I don’t want to sit next to him.”

When I heard her words of contempt, I became even more angry. I looked at Miss Pike and said, “I too, don’t want to sit next to someone with no teeth!”

Maria again began to wail and cry and kicked around in anger.

Miss Pike closed her eyes in resignation.

She turned to me and said sternly, “Zachary, you should not say something that can make people cry.”

I stomped my foot. “Well, I can cry too, then she and I are even!” Then, I started my own crying, making it even louder than Maria’s was.

By this time, all the kids were staring.

Soon, it began to be quite obvious to everyone present that we have turned our crying and screaming into a very tight competition.

Miss Pike then shouted at both of us to keep quiet unless we want to have the stern principal at the gate to come and scold us. We abruptly clamped our mouth shut and glared at each other.

Miss Pike then said in a calm reasonable tone that she would give each of us a letter to be handed to our parents, explaining about the misunderstanding between us and asking the parents to talk to their respective child about what had happened. She would like a reply of that letter as a proof of its deliverance to our respective parents.

Oh, the bother!!

I just knew I would get into trouble over this! It was almost certain that my parents would say I was at fault.

Luckily, I had an aunty who was fond of me and could forge her brother’s signature easily enough.

I went home that day with a determination to have a good wash of myself. Just in case, the snotty-nosed-toothless girl  was right. Then, maybe I would be as white as Maria and Miss Pike and the rest of my homeroom mates.

To my consternation, no amount of scrubbing with Aunt Mina’s Body Shop soap would turn my skin white. After two hours of trying, I gave up.

I then told Aunt Mina the whole story when she got back from her uni. As I have expected, Aunt Mina was very understanding…until I got to the part where I said something bad about Maria’s teeth.

Aunt Mina was furious with me. She said that we should never hurt someone’s feelings based on her appearance. That it was very bad-mannered of me to taunt and tease a girl in such a way to cause her to cry in distress.

“B..But, Aunt Mina! It’s not fair. She said, I was black and dirty, that I was covered with soot.”

“Next time, just tell her that this is your skin. That its color is different than hers but that’s all. Ask her to compare her skin to Miss Pike’s. No matter how white both of them are, no one has the same skin color and skin tone from one to another. We are all unique individuals in our own right. Let her know that Miss Pike has her own skin tone and she has her own skin tone. And so are you. And then, kindly apologize.” Aunt Mina lectured me, vehemently.

“It’s so unfair. She started it!”

“Do you want me to reply to this letter or do you want me to tell mummy and daddy about this?” Aunt Mina was quick to use her advantage.

“Aunt Mina!!” I wailed.

“I want you to do what I said and apologize to her tomorrow. Otherwise….-“she trailed off in a warning tone.

I huffed and puffed but at last I gave her the promise she forcibly choked out of me.

She then ruffled my short curly hair and smiled. “Don’t stress out too much about it, darling. I expect, if Maria’s parents are good people, they would get Maria to apologize to you too. Who knows? You might even be best friends all your life.”

I shrieked in horror. That beast? My best friend? All my life?? God could not possibly hate me that much!

But it turned out that I was not the only one with my own crystal ball. I was not the only one with sound premonition and great predictive ability. My Aunt Mina was just as good at that sort of thing.

The next day, Maria and I bumped into each other on our way to our homeroom. Her cheeks reddened, but this time it didn’t look quite like anger. My cheeks…well I felt the heat but I was dead sure that it would not look red because my cheeks would look black no matter what.

Maria cleared her throat. “My papa told me to apologize to you.”

I cleared my own throat. “My Aunt Mina mentioned the same thing to me too.”

Maria nodded in satisfaction. “Why don’t you apologize first. I am listening.” She nodded and smiled sweetly, letting me see her gapped row of front teeth.

I bit my lower lip. “Well, I am willing to listen to you apologize first.”

Maria frowned. “But I was the one who suggested the idea first.” Her voice raised a notch.

I sighed, inwardly. I tried to remember what Aunt Mina and my father would usually do when they reached a standoff. According to my father, “When you reached an impasse, it’s time to compromise.”

With that sound advice in mind, I showed her my own teeth with the help of my dazzling smile and told her, “Well, since both your papa and my aunt have asked us to apologize, then we can consider it done. All right?”

Maria looked thoughtful for a second; and then again she smiled her gapped-teeth smile at me and said, “I think that’s an excellent idea, Zachary!”

“Thank you, Maria. I think so too.”

We walked down the corridor hand in hand, as though we had always been great friends and yesterday was a nightmare that never happened. Maria then whispered to me secretively, “I can touch your hand now because my daddy told me that your skin is naturally black. That you are not covered in soot or dirt.” Maria kindly explained to me why she had consented to hold my hand.

I shrugged. “Your daddy is very clever. Like my daddy. I was just about to explain that to you, myself.”

Maria nodded. “And he also told me to tell you that my two teeth at the front would grow back in no time at all, so you don’t have to worry about how good my smile would look in the future.”

“Ah…yes. Thank you for telling me. That’s a relief.”

And it was indeed a relief, for if they were her permanent teeth that were missing, I would be deprived of the loveliest smile on earth throughout the 50 years that we have known each other; as well as throughout the 30 years of creating a family together. In that span of time, it was her smile that brightened up all my days of hardships and endurance, happiness and contentment.

Aunt Mina used to tell me, in all her usual vehement wisdom, that friendship, not unlike love, was colour blind. That love grows not in spite of the differences, but because of them.

Imagine if everyone was born similar in looks and appearance, with similar tastes and similar opinions. Where would we find genuine fascination and real interest? Where would we find the passion to love someone else? If we are all similar and demand similarity in all things, we might as well just love ourselves. What a lonely life that would be.

We should all revel in differences. Harmony can exist in those differences. Love can thrive in those differences.

And in the story of Maria and I, that statement rang true throughout our lives. Our children loved the stories of how we fell in love.

I always told them, “It began when your mother and I each pointed our differences.”

At which point Maria would jump in and say, “And then, we decided we would not have it any other way.”

2 thoughts on “1) The Boy Covered In Soot

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