by Fadzlishah Johanabas
“Can you take me to the toilet? I think there’s a monster in there.”
I studied the girl before me, who could not have been older than eight. She spoke with a slight lisp, her two front teeth were missing, and her long hair jutted out in places, as if she had just gotten out of the bed. Her white-with-cartoon-prints hospital pajamas looked a size too big for her. I bent down to her eye level – she had the longest lashes I had ever seen; she would grow up to be a beautiful woman.
“What’s your name, sayang?” I use the affectionate term on most patients; it comes naturally.
“Qistina. I’m scared.”
I gave her my brightest smile. “Come. I’ll go with you. There are no monsters in the toilet, you’ll see.”
Her eyes told me she was still contemplating my words, but she nodded and turned to walk into the communal toilet. I followed her closely. I found it odd to have a pediatric patient walking about unattended, but I also knew around this time, the other night nurses would be busy administrating medications and checking up on their patients. I smiled at the memories of my own experience. This was one of the perks of being promoted to a Sister; I checked on the nurses instead of patients.
I couldn’t blame the little girl for being afraid. The fluorescent lights were near expiring; the one at the far end was flickering with a faint buzz. Though the old-olive-green tiles were cleaned on a regular basis, the rotting wood on the doors showed. Even the mirrors were littered with rust stains. The doors on all seven stalls stood ajar, and Qistina gave me a quick glance before entering the one nearest to the entrance.
“I’ll be right here, sayang.” I took the chance to straighten my dark-blue uniform and white hijab. The still of the night augmented the sounds around me; the jet of urine on water in the ceramic bowl, the constant drips from the tap of the middle sink, the groaning and churning of old piping within the walls. My body gave a sudden involuntary shiver. I wasn’t quite sure why.
I almost jumped when I saw Qistina standing beside me, looking up with a serious face, even biting her lower lip.
“Are you done?”
“Did you flush?”
She nodded again.
I opened the tap for her, and water spat out in choked bursts. The wall piping groaned even louder. Qistina ran her hands under the water and bolted out. I gave a small giggle and turned the tap off before exiting the toilet. Qistina didn’t wait for me; I saw her tiny form making a sharp right into her ward. I giggled again. Monsters, really.
I didn’t follow Qistina to make sure she was back on her bed. I had two more floors to cover. During office hours I took care of the male Medical ward; most times it could be mistaken for an infirmary from the number of extension beds and overflowing patients. Once or twice a week, I would do the night calls, covering a quarter of the hospital, from all the Medical wards, both male and female, to the Medical Pediatric ward, and lastly to the Coronary Care Unit. My work was to make sure things were running smoothly with the nursing staff. And that night, all was quiet so far, which I was thankful for.
The long corridor toward the CCU was deserted, and my heels made echoes as I walked. The black plastic chairs lined along the inner wall looked worn but still usable, and outside the half-opened windows, the sky was pitch-black. There were no stars; they were seldom seen in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The glow of city lights reached far over the tall canopy of rooftops and trees.
Much to my surprise, a grey-striped cat paced in front of the CCU, mewing in a small voice for such a big cat. I tsked at the laxity of the cleaners and maintenance staff. This was the third floor, and they should have known better than to let a stray cat wander about. In a hospital, no less. I made shooing noises and waved the cat away toward the staircase. It scampered at my approach, but stayed a few meters away and sat staring at the door. I decided against chasing it away.
As I opened the door leading into the CCU, a whiff of rotten meat assaulted my nose for a fraction of a second, and then it was gone. Maybe I was imagining it, but the odor lingered at the back of my throat, threatening to make me gag. I went straight for the nurses’ counter.
The two nurses at the counter stopped writing their reports and stood up to greet me. One of them, a plump woman with a kind, open face gave me a warm smile. Sue Yin had been my junior at nursing school. The other one, petite, looking barely out of her teens, clutched a patient’s file until her knuckles were white. I had to admit, some of the more strict and demanding Sisters made the newer nurses feel intimidated by anyone wearing the dark blue uniform.
“Good evening, Sister Rohana,” said Sue Yin.
“Sue Yin, what’s that rotten smell?”
Both the nurses made an attempt to sniff the air around them. Then they gave each other a confused look and a small shrug.
“Nothing unusual, Sister.”
I decided not to press the matter. “Anything to report?”
The small nurse reached for a piece of paper on the counter but Sue Yin stopped her and gave her a smile. If it was meant to reassure the junior, it was working. She looked visibly relieved. Sue Yin turned back to look at me with an almost imperceptible shrug which I responded to in kind. “Seven patients,” she started, her tone confident. “Three empty beds. Two beds are booked for patients coming from the wards, both of them male. The patients are all stable, except for one.” She pointed at a room facing the entrance. “Seventy-two year-old Malay man. Acute myocardial infarct four days ago. His children agreed to withhold inotropic support yesterday, but he’s still holding on.”
I craned my neck to catch a glimpse at the old man behind the glass-panel window. He was frail and leathery, all bones and not much flesh. His chest under the blanket rose and fell in time with the respirator machine. I then looked at the overhead monitor and searched for his vital signs. The patient’s blood pressure was impossibly low, barely compatible with life, but his heart was beating at a steady rate of eighty per minute. I raised both eyebrows but gave no comment. I had come across patients like this one several times throughout my career, patients who should have already died but held on to life with tenacity and desperation. None of them lasted more than a few days.
“I hope the rest of the night will be quiet. Just page for me if you have any problems.”
They returned my smile and nodded. “Have a quiet night, Sister,” piped the small junior.
When I opened the door to exit, I took another look over my shoulder at the old patient lying comatose behind me. I intended to give a silent prayer for him, but my own heart stilled at what I saw. I blinked once, twice, but it was still there. I scampered out of the CCU, my heart beating so quickly my chest ached.
By the time my shift ended, I was down with fever. My joints ached, the back of my eyes throbbed, and I was shivering despite the warm dawn. My drive home was a haze; it was a small miracle I made it home without causing an accident. The house was empty. My husband had left to take my two children to school on his way to work. I peeled off my uniform and undergarments and shrugged on a batik kaftan, too feverish and shaken to take a shower first. I collapsed onto the bed and tried to sleep.
Even with my eyes closed, even nearly ten kilometers away from the hospital, I could still see it.
The creature – I had no other name for it – squatted at the head of the old patient’s bed, its body humanlike, but not quite. Its limbs were long and spidery, with long spikes jutting out from its knobby shoulders and thin forearms. Paws that perched on the bed ended in claws, like a vulture’s. Its whole body, thin and long, was black, but under the fluorescent light it glistened. Scales? Tiny feathers? I didn’t want to find out. What I could still clearly remember was its face. Red eyes glowed from deep, skeletal sockets, and yellow fangs protruded from its much-too-wide mouth. Its nose looked as if a huge part of it had dropped off, yet despite it all, it looked almost human. It was looking down at the patient, long blue tongue rolling out to lick his forehead. Its head moved upward, slowly upward –
I jumped out of the bed and rushed to the shower. I didn’t bother to take off my kaftan. I turned the tap on and stood under the needles of cold water. My knees shook and buckled, and I dropped onto the tiled floor sitting. I cried, wanting to forget what I had seen, desperate to tell myself I only imagined it, but I couldn’t.
* * * * *
It took me three days to recover from the fever, but I could still visualize the creature. If anyone could explain what I had seen, I knew I wouldn’t find the answers in the hospital. There was only one person who could help me.
I had not come back to my parents’ house for years, not since my mother passed away. I stopped seeing the place as home when I began a family of my own, and without my mother around, I had no reason left to come and visit. Until now.
The house was deep in the paddy fields of Kedah, two states north of Kuala Lumpur. I drove alone; I didn’t want my children to skip school, and my husband had to look after them while I was away. When I parked my car by the dirt road a good walking distance away from the house, the sun was well on its way to setting. Yellow dust from the village road now coated my silver Corolla. I made my way down along the narrow packed-earth path without wasting time. I never liked walking through the paddy field at dark. Still, I stopped midway to take in the familiar sights and smells I had deprived myself of for much too long. The paddy shoots, peeking a few centimeters above the muddy, flooded field, were still green. They bent in waves with the soft evening breeze. The rich scents of mud and greenery filled my nostrils and I breathed all of them in as much as I could. Soon this whole expanse would be golden with ripe paddy stalks. I smiled at the memories of my childhood.
My parents’ house was old even by the village standard. The wooden walls and stilts were dark with age, and the woven nipah roof looked like it was due for a fresh change. The windows were closed except for the ones in the main hall at the front of the house. A woman in a plain white baju kurung stood at the base of the staircase leading to a small patio in front of the main entrance. Her long black hair whipped about with the strong wind, but her face was mostly covered. When I approached her, she walked away. I was too tired to care.
“Assalamualaikum,” I called out. “Abah? Are you in?”
The front doors creaked open and my father stepped out, squinting to see me. He looked much older than when I last saw him. The years without my mother had not been kind on Abah. He was gaunt, his hair more white than grey, and his white T-shirt hung limp on his body when it used to bulge at the abdomen. He had more wrinkles on his tanned brown face, but he still looked the same. Stern but kind. I felt a stab of guilt for not coming back to see him even during Eid holidays, for not picking up the phone to call him.
“Ana? Rohana, is that you?”
“I told you, you need to wear glasses, Abah.” I walked up the steep stairs and took his hand to kiss it.
For a while he stood perfectly still and unresponsive, but before I could stand straight again, he rested his left hand at the back of my head. “Welcome home, Ana. Welcome home.” His voice was deep, but a higher-pitched crack broke through.
The inside of the house looked just the same as I remembered. The faded peach leather sofa set sat in one corner, the surface peeling in a few places. Thick dust had settled on the plastic plants and flowers I had bought to brighten the house. The scent was familiar too, a mixture of incense, unfiltered tobacco and massage oil. I leaned back against the plush sofa while my father disappeared into the kitchen to boil water. Only when he came back with a steaming teapot and a plate of cream crackers did I realize I had dozed off.
Abah took a seat opposite mine. “You drove here without stopping?”
I stifled a yawn. “There’s a woman in front of the house looking for you, I think.”
Abah rose and walked toward the window. The floorboards creaked with each step. He stood still in front of the window for almost a minute before turning back to look at me. “You saw a woman?”
“In a white baju kurung?”
I nodded again.
“Come here, Ana.”
I sighed and complied. He indicated for me to look down by tilting his head. The woman in white was still standing outside where I first met her, bathed in the light of the single bulb at the patio. When the wind picked up, her hair lifted off her face.
Only, there was no face.
I screamed and staggered back. I would have fallen if Abah did not brace me. He uttered a string of prayers into my ear and after a while my sobs calmed down.
“Who – what is that?”
“You were not supposed to be able to see her. I’m sorry, Ana. I’ve grown old and weak.”
* * * * *
My father is a bomoh, a local witch-doctor, or a shaman. People would come to him at night to be healed from various ailments and woes. Some sought exorcism from evil spirits, while others would come hoping to glean winning lottery numbers. Abah always turned them down, those people looking to get rich fast and easy. He is always helping people, healing them. The only thing is, I don’t believe in his traditional methods of medicine. I fell in love with modern medicine the day I broke my left forearm in the paddy fields when I was ten. When I wanted to take up nursing, he refused to support me. He wanted me to stay in the village. I left home with my mother’s blessing and two hundred ringgit in my pocket.
Now, as I watched him sitting cross-legged across the hall, a bowl of incense crackling in front of him, I felt the same rebellious feeling all over. He had a thin film of cataract coating his pupils, yet he refused to be treated at the hospital. Still, there was no modern medical explanation to the things I had witnessed.
“Is that… thing outside dangerous?”
“Not if you disturb it first. Not unless its master wishes you harm.”
“Its master?” I leaned forward despite finding this conversation incredible at the very least.
“There are creatures in this world people are not meant to see, much less control.”
“Like the malaikat and syaitan?” I inquired, referring to the Quranic term of angels and devils.
Abah nodded. “Ana, I’ve taught you to read and memorize the Quran. Surely you understand what you’ve been reading?”
My cheeks burned at being berated, never mind I was almost forty. I looked up and saw Abah looking straight at me.
“There are good beings, like the malaikat and the bunian and some djinns. And there are others. The creature you saw outside is a crossbreed between a syaitan and a djinn. Such evil spirits can be tamed to do a person’s bidding. With a price.” The last sentence came out as a firm and final warning.
“Why would people want to control them?”
“Wealth, fame. Greed can make people do anything.”
“What’s the price for keeping them?”
“Most of the time the master’s blood, every week or every month. But sometimes, with the stronger ones, an unborn child is needed to tame them.”
I gasped and gripped the sofa. “Surely people won’t go that far?”
“You’re a nurse. You’ve seen women giving birth to dead babies.”
“But that’s because of complications. Cord strangulation, fetal distress –”
“And sometimes the doctors cannot explain what went wrong.”
I felt my mouth opening and shutting but no words came out. Abah was right. Masya-Allah, I thought. Who would do such a thing? “But why is that creature out there?”
“Its master died last week. It took him a month to die before his family came and sought my help. The creature kept him alive so it could feed. I banished it from him. When he did die, his body was rotten. Now the creature’s lost and wants a new home, a new master.”
“You dealt with it here, in our house?”
Abah shook his head. “No, two villages away.”
“How did it find you?”
“These creatures cannot travel far from objects that keep them anchored in our plane. If they need to bridge the distance, they usually employ animals. Monkeys, cats, rats. I still can’t find the small idol that belongs to the creature, so it lingers around. It’s angry at me, you know.”
“Are you in danger?” I thought about bringing Abah to Kuala Lumpur. Forcing him, if I had to.
Abah chuckled. “It can’t do anything much without its master. But I need to send it home.”
“I saw something like the one outside a few days ago. Actually, that’s the reason I came back.”
If Abah felt hurt at what I said, he showed no sign. “What did you see?”
I described the creature in the CCU to the very last detail. Abah didn’t interrupt me. I felt like unloading a heavy burden; I had not told anyone about what I saw, not even my husband.
“That’s a hantu raya.” That simple, like a consultant physician making a spot diagnosis by listening to a patient’s history.
I had no idea what Abah was talking about. “What’s a hantu raya?”
“They are strong creatures, usually tamed to help their masters gain wealth. Lots of wealth.”
“Eliminating the competition.”
I shuddered at that thought. There were more than enough patients who suddenly fell ill and comatose without logical explanation. Then a thought occurred to me. “Abah. I’ve never seen these creatures before. Why now?”
“You used to be able to. You’re just like me, and my father, and his mother. They were strong bomohs. When you were eight, and I was healing a man haunted and harmed by an evil spirit, you came into the room and saw the creature straddling the man. You reached out for it, and it reached out for you. It took me a week to banish it off you. Your mother decided it was safer for you to not see these creatures. So I took your vision away.”
“How come I don’t remember?”
Abah chuckled again. “I’m a strong bomoh, too.”
“Abah, is that why you didn’t want me to go? You want me to be a bomoh like you?”
He looked at me in silence, his face impassive. When I thought he wouldn’t answer my question, his lips parted.
“I wanted to keep you safe.”
* * * * *
Abah looked uncomfortable, out of place, sitting in my office. I watched him as he looked about, fidgeting with his prayer beads, looking at framed family pictures.
“Sister Rohana,” Sue Yin called from my door. “The patient’s children are here.”
I smiled at Sue Yin and beckoned to let them enter. Three men huddled into the room, all of them looking significantly older than me. If anything, they looked just as lost as Abah. I pointed at the sofa. “Please, have a seat.”
Two of them sat, but the other remained standing with his arms crossed. I assumed he was either the eldest or the dominant sibling. “Is there anything, Sister?”
“I’m sorry to call for a meeting on such notice. Your father. There hasn’t been any change, is there?”
“No, and the doctors and nurses keep on telling us every single day he’s about to die.” He didn’t sound pleased.
“I’m sorry about that. Most patients don’t survive long with your father’s vital signs. We prepare family members for the inevitable. But your father’s situation is – how do I put it – unique.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Abah, who was silent throughout the conversation, spoke up. “Does your father keep a hantu raya?”
One of the sitting men shot up, his face flushed. “How dare you? Who are you?”
Both siblings asked a barrage of questions with ever rising voices. I would too if I hadn’t known any better. Then the third sibling, slim and refined in a crisply ironed batik shirt and black slacks, stood up and rested a hand on each of his brothers’ shoulders. They stopped their questions mid-sentence, their faces still red and angry.
“How did you know about that?”
From the look on their faces, the other two siblings had no idea what was happening.
Abah, still calm on his chair, looked straight at the man who just spoke. “It’s not letting your father die. It needs blood to survive, so it’s keeping him alive.”
“I thought so.”
“What? What are you talking about?” asked the other two brothers almost at the same time.
“You knew about it?” I said.
“He wanted me to take over when the time came. I take care of the family business, so my father told me his secret about a year ago.”
“And you don’t want it.” Abah’s words were not a question.
“No. I want to be successful on my own, not this way. It’s wrong. But please, help him. Help him die.”
Abah nodded his promise.
The five of us entered the CCU like a small army. I led the way, and Abah strode by my side, his face determined. The three brothers trailed close. It was past visiting hours, and to my relief, the on-call doctor was not around. The afternoon-shift nurses had just finished passing over to the night-shift ones, and all of them stood up when they saw me.
“Sister Rohana,” one of them spoke up. “You’re not on-call, are you?”
I smiled at the nurses. “Just visiting a patient.” I looked at the old man lying on the bed with the respirator attached. The black creature was still perched over his head, licking his forehead. I turned to Abah and found him looking at me.
Abah turned to talk to the three brothers. “Wait outside,” I heard him say. “If you hear anything, feel anything, just recite this verse and refuse any suggestions in your head, no matter how tempting.”
I waited for the afternoon-shift nurses to leave before approaching the three night-shift ones. “I’m going to close the door and shutters for the patient. Just continue your normal duties and whatever happens, don’t go into the room.”
I registered the confused look on their faces. They were scared, even. No one works in a hospital without hearing ghost stories.
“Please. The sons have consented.”
They nodded and continued reading the case notes and reports, but they kept on stealing glances at the room. I decided it was good enough, and entered the room with Abah. While he took out his incense bowl and a Yaasin booklet, I lowered the blinds to ensure complete privacy. The creature had stopped licking the old man’s forehead. It was looking at us. I could feel its lazy curiosity. I could feel it smiling. The stench of rotten meat assaulted my senses.
Abah looked straight at the creature, both his hands gripping the foot of the bed firmly. “Get out of this man, demon spawn.”
“No.” It was just a slow, gravelly whisper, but to me it sounded like the rumble of a landslide.
“Get out of this man, demon spawn.”
“No.” This time, the answer was accompanied by a laugh. I clamped my hands over both ears.
Abah lit the incense and recited the Yaasin without opening the booklet. It took him nearly ten minutes to complete the verse, but the creature showed no outward reaction. In fact, it looked bored.
“Ana, open the windows.” Abah did not take his eyes away from the beast. He grabbed onto the patient’s right big toe and started reciting the Yaasin again.
I fumbled toward the window and pushed it ajar. A fresh night breeze gave me slight relief from the powerful stench. I heard a roar and I whipped back toward the head of the bed. The hantu raya was squirming, snapping at the air in front of Abah, its purulent spittle spraying on his face. It made an attempt to claw at Abah, but could not quite reach him. It couldn’t do physical harm unless instructed. Abah continued in his crisp, melodic tone. His recital was too fast for me to follow.
The creature roared and snapped, and when it could not get any reaction from Abah, it turned toward me.
Take me in.
The command came like a huge mental wave, sending me staggering back. My head throbbed as if hit from behind with a helmet.
Take me in.
I saw myself in a big bungalow, with a Mercedes parked in the driveway. My family looked happy, jubilant. Even with our pooled income, we would never afford this luxury. But it was possible, with a little help.
I shook my head to clear the images. No, I commanded back.
Take me in.
This time, my children were both lying on hospital beds with respirator tubes sticking out of their mouths. Physically they looked fine, but they wouldn’t wake up. My husband was haggard, his shirt creased and old. It was so real that I found myself crying. No, I thought. Please, not this. Not to my family.
Take me in. I promise you wealth and continued health. You can have anything you want, just name it.
When I refused its demand and promises, the hantu raya immersed me in another vivid vision. This time I was sitting by a grave with a Yaasin booklet opened in my hands. My whole family was dead, Abah included. I felt myself weakening. Wave after wave of lifelike mental images assaulted me. I slid onto the floor clutching my head. With just a simple answer, all my pain and dread would go away.
“Ana, be strong.” Abah’s voice was a rock, and I was slipping away, rushed by a torrential current. I held on to that rock no matter how slick my hands felt.
“No!” I screamed, grabbed the Yaasin booklet, and recited almost as fast as Abah.
The room shook, the cabinets rattled. The monster thrashed about, screaming in frustration.
“Get away from this man,” Abah commanded. “In Allah’s name, get away now!”
The creature gave a high-pitched screech and lunged over me, jumping out the window. I scampered up and secured it. I turned to look at the old man on the bed. Even though it was not possible with the respirator attached, I saw the patient give a long sigh before his cardiac monitor showed a straight line.
Abah leaned against the wall and wiped sweat and pus from his face. He looked tired and much older. I wondered how he had the strength to do what he did. I could barely hold myself upright.
“Abah, you’ve got scratch marks on your face!”
He let out a long sigh. “I’ll be fine. That hantu raya’s a strong one.”
“Is it gone?”
“I have to destroy its idol to banish it. For now, it’s out there, lost and angry without a master.”
I looked out the window, at the starless sky.
“Don’t worry, Ana. People can’t see these creatures, so they can’t do actual harm.”
I hoped Abah was right. When I opened the doors, all three nurses were huddled together, their eyes wide with stark fear. They could not have seen or heard anything from the creature, but I knew they heard the loud recitals, my scream, and the shaking furniture.
I called the three brothers to attend to their father, who now had maggots streaming out of his mouth. Abah did his best to clean the body, but there were too many of them, squirming out of his eyes, ears and nostrils too. One brother gagged and vomited in front of the door, and the other rushed out of the CCU. One of the nurses came to help, but when she looked inside the room, she gave a shrill scream and ran away. Luckily the rest of the patients were comatose, or they would have suffered another heart attack.
I took Abah’s hand and supported him as we walked out of the CCU. He was visibly weak from the ordeal. I wasn’t any better, but being younger had its advantages.
The older man in the batik shirt approached us. Tears were streaming down his face. “Thank you. At least now he can rest.” I understood he also thanked us for saving him from the same fate.
As we drove home, I stole glances at Abah. His eyes were closed, and the lines on his face were less obvious. I kept on remembering his voice, his strength. He had always been there for me when I was growing up. He had been my strength, and he still was. I had so much to atone for with Abah.
“You should come home more often,” Abah whispered. “I miss you.”
I choked back my tears. “I miss you too.” Long moments of silence followed, but the silence felt comfortable. “Abah, thank you.”
* * * * *
I stopped by the Pediatric ward for my usual rounds. It was almost ten and parents were tucking their children to sleep. The night was quiet, and so far, the wards were managed well. I looked forward to finishing my own report in my office. As I walked out, I turned back to face the nurses.
“How is that little girl? Qistina, I think.”
“We don’t have a Qistina here, Sister.”
“That’s two weeks ago. Maybe she’s discharged.”
“No, there wasn’t one two weeks ago either. The only Qistina we had was a nine-year-old, about a month ago.”
“Oh? What happened to her?”
“She passed away.”
I staggered back. The girl I saw was a ghost. And she may not have been the only one I had come across. What about other patients walking alone at night? Where they real, or ghosts as well? I thought I could deal with it, after what I had gone through. I couldn’t. I ran away from the ward as fast as I could. In my blind rush I stumbled into a stack of boxes. I felt the palm of my hand snaring against a sharp metallic edge. The cut was not deep, but I was bleeding.
I forced myself to calm down, and made my way toward my office. I stopped by a public toilet to clean my hand. The stench of urine was strong; I would have preferred to use the one near my office, but I didn’t want to leave a trail of blood along the way. I ran cold water over my palm. It stung at first.
A brown tabby purred and rubbed its body on my legs, weaving between my feet. I jumped, surprised, and then laughed at myself for being so jumpy.
“How did you get here?”
The cat gave another purr and settled down beside my feet.
I laughed again under my breath and reached for the tap to turn it off. My hand didn’t make it that far.
In the mirror I saw the familiar skeletal face with red eyes and protruding fangs. Pus seeped out of what remained of its nose. It was tall, but it hunkered down so that its face was level with mine. One of its hands reached out from behind me toward the sink. It was smiling.
I tore my gaze away from the mirror and looked down. Spindly fingers moved in a slow motion, reaching toward my hand.
The hantu raya was lost and hungry. And it wanted my blood.
I attempted to scream, but its other paw clamped my mouth shut.
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