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By Jon Clinch
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $23.95
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it's an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Boys note its passage first, boys from the village taking the long way to Sunday school, and their witness is as much nature's way as is the slow dissolution of the floating body into the stratified media of air and water. The corpse is not too very far from shore and clearly neither dog nor deer nor anything but man.
"I'll bet it's old Finn," says one of them, Joe or Tom or Bill or perhaps some other. On this Sunday morning down by the riverbank they are as alike as polished stones. "My pap says they'll fish him from the river one day for sure."
"Go on," says another.
"Yes sir. A worthless old drunk like that."
"Go on," says the other again. He picks up a flat stone and tests it in his hand, eyeing the crow, which has returned and sunken its beak into a pocket of flesh. "Shows how much you know. That ain't even a man."
"I reckon you think it's a mule."
"It's a woman, no question."
The lot of them go jostling together and squinting into the sunrise and blinking against the glare on the water as if the only thing superior to the floating corpse of a man would be the floating corpse of a woman, as if seeking in unison for a lesson in anatomy and never mind the cost.
Finally, from one of them or another but in the end from the childish heart in each save the learned one, this confession: "How can you tell?"
"Men float facedown. Anybody knows that." Skipping the stone across the water to flush the crow, ruining his good trousers with the offhand brush of muddy fingers.
They draw straws, and as the unlucky boy lights out toward the village to enlist an adult the rest of them locate a skiff and cast off and make for the body. They hook her with a willow switch, these boys inured to dead things, and they drag her like bait to shore. One of them has been keeping a dead cat on a string for a week now, a kitten really, just a poor stiff dried husk won exactly this way, string and all, in a game of mumblety-peg.
The corpse floats low in the water, bottoming out in the mud that sucks at heel and buttock and drooping wrist. During its journey down the river it has failed to swell in the common way of corpses left in the sun. It lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.
One boy panics and loses his balance and falls into the water, his clothes spoiled for Sunday.
The bootlegger stirs his fire, oblivious to the sparks that circle upward into the night sky. He hears everything, every whisper in the dry grass of the pathway that leads from behind his shack, every snapping twig in the surrounding woods, every wingbeat of sparrow or jay or owl. "You can't steal whiskey from old Bliss," he likes to say, as if anyone would stoop so low as to steal whiskey from a blind man.
He repeats this reassurance now to Finn, who has proven him wrong before. "That's so," says Finn.
Pleased with himself, Bliss cackles until he coughs. Then he spits between his crooked teeth into the fire, where the sputum lands with a satisfying sizzle. "You got a jug?"
" 'Course I got a jug." Finn is as regular around these premises as the weather, even more regular than Bliss knows. But tonight his first purpose is neither to buy whiskey nor to steal it but to dispose of something in Bliss's perpetual fire. He has a tow sack between his feet, filthy even in the firelight and slowly leaking something into the dust. He bumps the blind man's knee with his jug, a signal.
"Go on get it yourself," says Bliss. "Can't you see I'm occupied?"
"I'll tend. You pour. Give me that stick."
Bliss won't let it go. "Leave an old man be. I reckon you know where I keep it."
"I reckon I do, if I could find it in the dark."
He has a point, so Bliss hands over the stick and limps off into the woods muttering to himself like an old priest.
Finn unties the tow sack and lays out its contents, long strips dark and dimly glistening, pieces of flayed flesh identically sliced save one. Their regularity in width and length and thickness speaks of a huntsman's easy skill and a plotter's furtive patience and something else too. He chooses one and throws it upon the fire, where it sizzles and smokes and curls in upon itself as sinuously as a lie.
"Hope you brought some for me," says Bliss from the depths of the woods.
"There's plenty." Throwing another piece into the fire to blacken. "Bring a couple of them jars when you come back. We'll have ourselves a time."
Bliss, weighed down with Finn's crockery jug of forty-rod, adjusts his course and shuffles down the path toward the cabin. Halfway along he uses his head at last, plants the jug midpath like a tombstone, and makes for home unencumbered, counting off the paces so as not to stub his unshod foot during the journey back.
By firelight Finn locates the piece he's set aside for his host. He clears hot ash from a rock and places it there in the manner of an offering.
"I ain't had nothing but beans all week," says Bliss as he squats on his log. He swirls whiskey to cleanse a pair of canning jars. One of them is cracked about the rim and fit to tear someone's lip, and this one Bliss chooses for himself as long as Finn is paying. He minds the crack with his thumb. Bliss is a poor drinker and he knows it. Not mean like Finn, but morose and persistent and beyond satisfying. "A little of your fatback would've gone good with them beans."
"You'll like it well enough plain," says Finn.
Bliss sniffs the air with satisfaction and mutters something unintelligible, pours himself another whiskey.
"You be sparing with that." But Finn doesn't mean it and he knows that Bliss will pay him no mind anyhow. Once you get Bliss started there's no slowing him down until the jug is empty. "Besides, I ain't paid for it yet."
"Don't worry none. I'll put it on your account." Tapping the side of his head with a finger.
They sit in silence while the meat cooks.
"I've broken it off with that woman," says Finn.
"You've made such a claim before."
"This time I mean it."
"I reckon we will."
Bliss points his nose toward the spot where the meat sizzles on the fire just as surely as if he had two good eyes to guide it. "When'll that be ready, you suppose? I don't want it burnt."
"Soon." Tossing in another strip or two.
"Ain't no good to me burnt."
"Hold your water."
"I'm just saying. Yours must be about black by now. The one you put up while I was in them woods."
"I ain't having any. She's all yours, on account of how good you've always been to me."
"Aww. Tain't nothing."
"A token of my gratitude."
Bliss smiles in the odd unself-conscious way of one who has never looked into a mirror and learned thus to confine his expressions to the social norm. "So how long was you with her, Finn?"
"Ten, twelve years maybe. Fifteen, off and on."
"Offer and onner, like they say." He puts down his empty jar and rubs his hands together in a fit of glee, his whole brain a lovely jumble of women and fatback bacon. "What'll the Judge think?"
"Can't say." Stabbing the flesh with a sharp stick and flipping it over.
"You've steered him wrong before."
"I know it."
"Me, I don't believe you'll ever make a dent in that Judge. He knows what he knows."
"Your daddy's one judge that's got his mind made up."
"He's been that way all my life."
"He was that way before you was born, Finn. It ain't none of your doing." He hawks and spits into the fire, and Finn throws in some more pieces. "Sure it ain't done yet?"
"Just about. Have some more whiskey."
"Don't mind if I do."
After a while Finn stabs the meat and places it upon a flat stone that he bumps against the bootlegger's knee a time or two. "Can you set down that whiskey long enough to eat?"
"I'll do my best," says Bliss. Which he manages, just barely. And until half past midnight, while the silence in the woods deepens and the white moon looms and recedes and the owls grow weary at last of pursuing their prey through black air, the fire consumes Finn's secret. Come noon Bliss will awaken on the hard ground, and in his mind Finn's presence will have taken on the quality of a ghostly visitation.
He is between worlds, this boy. Between the river and the town, between the hogshead and the house, between the taint of his mother and the stain of his pap. He knows some things that he can never say, not even to himself.
He has trained his companions well—these boys forbidden to associate with him on account of his mother's suspected stigma and his father's famed trouble with whiskey, these boys who associate with him nonetheless and perhaps all the more intently for being forbidden his company although they do not generally encounter him at school or at church or at any of the other places ordinarily deemed suitable for boys of the village. They find his dark history as dizzying as a leap from some great bluff into a Mississippi pool and his scrapes with his violent pap as thrilling as a narrow escape from Injun Joe's cave and his deep broad knowledge of woodsman's lore and slave's superstition as enchanting as a spell of protection against nightwalking spirits or werewolves, these boys forbidden to play with him yet drawn into his wake like needles to a lodestone, these boys whom he has trained well enough that at least one of them knows what he'll say before he says it and indeed has said it already, that the body is not a man's at all on account of it floats face-up.
When he can extricate himself from the widow's he sleeps in a great barrel nearly as tall as a man and twice as big around, a sugar hogshead washed up among the rushes at the edge of the village. The barrel lies upon its side and he lies upon his side within it. Sometimes he locates a place between the staves where the rain and the riverwater and the barrel's former purpose have conspired to leave behind a concealed crusty ridge of old sugar solidified, and with his clasp-knife he pries it loose for the pleasure of sucking upon it while he drifts off to sleep.
In the end it falls to the undertaker to load the corpse upon a wagon and remove it from the indignity of public display. Except perhaps for O'Toole, the giant who owns the slaughterhouse in the next county, there is none other who might possess the stomach for it. So here he is, rolling the sticky fly-blown thing into a square of old canvas and wrangling it up onto the bed of his wagon as if it were the featureless corpse of a slug and he an ant, strong beyond his size. His name is Swope, he is rail-thin and dressed in rusty black, and he has been a fixture in the village of St. Petersburg for longer than anyone can remember. From long association he has acquired both the air of death and some of its permanence, and his pale hair bursts from under the brim of his slouch hat like a pile of sun bleached straw.
The corpse for its part is well mannered, patient, and perfectly amenable. Leached clean of all fluids, it barely stains the canvas tarpaulin.
Swope mutters to himself as he works, complaining about the hour and the uncharacteristic heat and the unfairness of the world. He has long made a habit of talking to himself, since no one else will do it. The children believe that he speaks to Death, which hovers invisibly over one of his shoulders or the other, although their parents believe instead that he addresses his harmless old horse, Alma.
"As if I weren't busy enough without goddamn half-pay charity cases come floating downstream. Won't barely cover my expenses, may God damn the goodness of my goddamn bleeding heart, but who in hell else is going to do it? And at this time of the morning, as if the old gal couldn't have kept till noon. A feller gets himself the idea to go skin somebody like a goddamn rabbit at least he ought to have the decency to set something by for the proper obsequies, mail it anonymous to the paper or the marshal or some such. A goddamn crime is what it is. The feller what done it deserves to be tried as much for one as for the other. Pitiful goddamn half-pay charity case."
The corpse has a high rotten smell that sifts through the canvas and rises into the morning air like supplication. Swope rumbles down the main street of the village cursing his luck and bemoaning his fate while in his dim little office the marshal scratches his head and his chin and his belly and lays plans to consult with the authorities upstream, from whom he is certain to learn nothing.
He slops paint onto the wall as if he has it to spare, which he does not. The money that he discovered in the woman's apron pocket, a dollar and change which he reassures himself he must have given to her at some time or another for he is no murdering thief—he may be many things but he is at the very least no murdering thief—the money that he found in her apron pocket bought the better part of a three-gallon pail of whitewash, although at the rate he's going it will be barely enough to cover the four walls and he'll still have the floor to do after that, along with the ceiling if it holds out. The furniture, what there is of it, is huddled midroom. Two sagging wicker chairs, a chest, a wooden frame bed of simple country carpentry. Perhaps he'll paint these as well, provided he has the opportunity and the materials. Laid out upon the chair are the woman's clothes, just where she took them off.
Two gabled windows front the river, looking west toward the Missouri side. The rising sun lights the tops of fir trees with pale gold and the river steams like slow soup in the cool morning air but Finn pays it no mind. The world is a distraction. With his thick brush he paints over the windows when he comes to them, glass and mullions and frames and all, as if to establish a seamless barrier between himself and the world outside. The whitewash, thin as the water that sulks by directly below this overhung house of his, seeps into every crack and cranny, cementing the windows shut and promising a long airless season ahead.
He is not entirely certain that he will sleep up here anymore. There's a horsehair couch downstairs, on the long west porch with the river running underneath, and he thinks that perhaps he will take up sleeping there from this day forward as a visible sign of the invisible change that he has wrought within himself. This bedroom he will leave naked and plain as a mausoleum, with the bed and the chairs and the off-angled broken-hinged chest positioned talismanic and the walls stripped bare and every single surface painted white.
As the morning advances he realizes that he ought to pace himself lest he grow weary before the job is done, even though the urge that drives him is more spiritual than otherwise and not to be denied from mere physical weakness. Sweat drips off the tip of his nose. Dirt and grease have caked his long black hair into ropes that hang thick before his face and he ties the filthy mess of them back with a strip of fabric torn from the hem of her dress, bedecking himself half like a pirate of the Spanish Main and half like something odder and less knowable. Aside from the knotted strip of fabric he is naked, splashed with paint, white on white. His overalls, washed in the river this very morning before the sun was up, hang dripping from a cane pole slung out over the river from the porch downstairs like an empty gibbet, the faintest faded ghost of a warning to all traffic upstream or down.
He slackens his pace and still has three walls finished by noon with half the paint left at least. Upon hard bare feet he goes downstairs out of the eye-watering smell of solvent to help himself to a dipper of water from an old sugar hogshead he keeps as a rainbarrel in one corner of the porch where the collapsed roof lets the runoff sluice down into it. Naked he stands behind the boards that rim the porch in the way of ramparts, watching the river traffic.
"What is it." He swivels his head with the urgency and precision of a crow, following the voice. Water runs down his chest.
"Reckon it's laundry day." The marshal, up from St. Petersburg on the Missouri side.
"Mind you don't get your pecker sunburnt."
"That happens, you're the first I'll show."
"Don't do me no favors."
"I don't mean to."
"I expect that woman of yours ain't to home, you running around like that."
"No she ain't."
"Unless I caught you in the middle of something."
"Not likely." Finn dips more water. Half of his work is done, a breeze has arisen from across the river, and he is feeling expansive. He has always been a big man, broad of shoulder and well muscled as befits one who draws his living from the river. "So what brings you to the big town," he says to the marshal, "other'n that steamboat?"
Lasseter, Illinois, is the county seat and a more prosperous place than St. Petersburg, from whence this Missouri lawman has come. His journey upriver has taken him well out of his proper jurisdiction, but not beyond the limits of his curiosity.
"Official business," says the marshal. "A little legwork."
Finn sips his water wishing it were something else.
"You see anything unusual float by last night, yesterday?"
"Calf come by last week. Monday, Tuesday maybe."
The marshal, gone bald before his time and thick around the middle, sags a little and puckers his lips as he turns away and scans the water. "That all?"
"How do you suppose your daddy's holding up?"
"That a fact."
The marshal chews his lip. "Same as always." He spits into the brown water, hikes up his trousers, and bids Finn goodbye with the back of his hand.
"Like I said," says Finn to the water in his rusty dipper. He scratches his crotch, studying the places along the river where his trotlines are fastened into the muddy bank with long iron stakes and rusty chains fit for a dungeon. Every hook must have found its catch by now. Two days have passed since he last ran the lines, one day given over to the work and one more given over to Bliss's forty-rod, of which he brought home a full jug. He ought to get out there on the river if he means to have any money for food or liquor, take up once again the old reliable routine about which he has hung the tattered rags of his life ever since he fell out of favor with the Judge, but instead he rehangs the dipper on a nail by its twisted handle and returns to the upstairs bedroom as if pursued. Certain stains have bled through the whitewash during his conversation with the marshal, tinting portions of the wall a pink as ruddy as flesh and necessitating there a second and more careful coat.
By nightfall he has finished the job and the room gleams ghostly by the light of his candle. He returns the bed and the chairs and the broken-backed chest to their rightful places, and he hangs the woman's clothes on their usual peg alongside the window where they may serve him as a reminder. Downstairs he finds a little whiskey left in the jug and a little bit more left in the bottom of another cracked one on the porch.The battered old jug's contents are mostly crumbled clay and rotten cork but he passes the slurry through a square of cloth and chokes it down all the same, followed by the dregs of Bliss's more recent handiwork. In the end, even after he's taken the cloth into his mouth and suckled it like a woman's breast, it is only enough to fuel his need for more.
He dons his overalls and frees the skiff and poles upstream past his trotlines to a place where other skiffs on the order of his and worse are tied up like a stringer full of fish gone belly up, and he attaches his own to the last of these then walks ashore across the unsteady lot of them. The steps to the riverside tavern grow out of the hillside where nature and convenience have placed them: flat rocks, dead limbs, curved roots cradling dried mud. Finn plods upward and makes one last futile search of his pockets before stepping inside, into a room where the day's heat lingers undiminished and the dark of night is not dispelled by so much as a single candle. Men play cards on the jutting porch beyond but he greets them not.
"You Finn," says Dixon, the proprietor.
"Hey Dix. How happy are you to see me?"
"No happier'n usual." Wiping down the wooden countertop with a filthy rag.
"I take that for a good sign."
"I take that to mean you've got empty pockets in them overalls."
Judged strictly by the regularity of his appearances and the quantity of his consumption, Finn is Dixon's best customer. The circumstance is not without its drawbacks. Their transactions are mainly in the way of barter, and Dixon's wife has lately decided that she would rather not serve her customers catfish with Finn's scent upon them, nor any other kind of fish that he's touched for that matter.
"If you won't stand me to a few then I reckon I'll find somebody who will," says Finn. His eyes have adjusted to the darkness and he scans the room from under brows knitted tight with urgency and desire. Only one figure resolves from the smoke and the gloom, a black man nearly as large as he and surely half again as strong. For all the world like a carved monument or a heathen totem, his burnished face glows and fades in the pulsing light cast by his corncob pipe. Finn looks through him or past him and throws up his hands in frustration. "Come on now, Dix. I'm good for it."
The black man, a gray-headed veteran whom everyone knows as George, rises from the table with his empty glass in hand. He moves with the grace and purpose of a storm cloud from his table to the bar behind which stands Dixon rubbing at an invisible spot with his filthy rag and contemplating Finn's sad destiny. "I'll have another'n," he says. "And this feller here'll have the same, long as you're pouring." Coins spill across the bar.
"I ain't that thirsty." Glowering at Dixon.
"Come on, Finn."
"That's all right."
Dixon pours one. "I ain't never seen you turn down a drink."
"There's a heap of things you ain't never seen."
"I know it."
"You ain't never seen the day I'll take his charity, for one." To Dixon, for Finn will not so much as cast his eyes upon the man who would be his benefactor.
George permits his teeth to gleam briefly in the dark.
"I didn't hear the man mention no charity," says Dixon. "You mention anything about charity, Mr. George?"
"Hear that, Finn?"
"I ain't never in my life been beholding to no nigger," says Finn, "and I ain't about to start now."
Dixon grows thoughtful behind the bar, and moves his hand in ever smaller circles.
"You going to stand me to that drink?"
George stacks his change into two separate piles, one for each drink he has in mind, and he gives them the faintest suggestion of a push across the bar. "Just being neighborly," he says in a voice like gravel and velvet. "Ain't a loan, ain't charity, ain't nothing but a drink."
"Tell him to drink it himself," says Finn, contrary to his own most imperative instincts but in keeping with his higher principles. "Tell him he ought to learn how to keep his money in his pocket."
Finn leaves the bar by the other way and stalks out onto the porch among the cardplayers. For the most part they look up, one at a time or in small groups like nesting owls, reflexively but without any excess of interest. Insects swarm their candles and collect in their glasses and get swallowed up one by one in the manner of Jonah but perhaps a bit more content for the anesthetic specifics of their dying. One of the men raises a glass to Finn, a trifle ironically and at some personal risk, but Finn pays him no mind and stamps off down the path toward the river from which he has come.
The evening has gone cool, and a sharpness in the air suggests to him that by and by his waterbarrel will resume crusting itself over with the thinnest frangible film of overnight ice. Everything changes, he thinks. The woman is gone and the world turns. Free niggers try to buy a man a drink for no reason. He troops down the steps with his head aching for whiskey and his boot-heel, the one into which he's driven a cross of nails to keep away the devil, leaving its own highly particularized trail in the dirt. He frees the skiff and it finds its own way into the current, reliable and wise as a bloodhound. Many's the time it's taken him well past home on a night like this. Perhaps the skiff knew best after all, perhaps he should have lingered down where it willed him, permitted himself to drift deeper and deeper into the slave states. Everything might have gone differently.
This evening though he's wide awake and fully alert, perhaps more so than is entirely healthy for a man of his habits and inclinations. He sniffs the air, listens to the lapping of water and the creaking of oars from downstream and the clinking together of glasses from up on Dixon's porch and other sounds too from various other locations along the river—sounds of argument and talk and singing and work, always work, for it seems to him that someone is forever chopping wood or wielding a saw or dragging some heavy object somewhere along the amplifying reach of the water, even at the deepest hour of the night. He comes abreast of his most upstream trotline and pictures its swarming struggling catch; tomorrow he'll run them all and gut the slick fish clean and cache them one after another in a bed of wet reeds like Moses in the bulrushes, and then he'll bring them up into the village to sell. Thus tomorrow night will not be like this night in the least, for he will be flush and able to do as he pleases. A flicker of light in the woods catches his eye and he considers pulling ashore for a while, following a certain path well known to him and hitting up old Bliss for a drink or two on account, an idea that sparks up in his mind and distracts his attention just long enough that as he's considering the tortuous walk into the deep woods to where the old man keeps his works his drifting boat bumps against another, this one not moving with the current but rather holding steady against it.
"Hey. Watch where you're going." The voice of a boy, no older than Finn's own son, which gives him an instant's pause.
"You boys." A powerful scent of fish above the omnipresent smells of the river and the night helps Finn realize just where he is and why the boys' doubtlessly purloined skiff is hanging steady in the water here of all places and exactly what the young miscreants are up to under this blanket of darkness. "Them's my trotlines," he says in a level voice.
"Shitfire," says one of the boys, and he goes plunging overboard rather than confront Finn's well-known wrath.
Everything is wet: fish arching in the bottom of the stolen skiff, the air erupting as two more boys dive to evade capture, Finn himself as he catches hold of a water-soaked and half-rotted paintless gunwale and makes fast. Only one boy remains, the youngest of the four and the most innocent and the least equipped to be out on the river in this kind of a fix, a black child barely visible in the stern until the moon breaks through overhead cloud and reveals him there. He has a tear in his glistening eye and a hook in his palm that he's been trying to nurse out with no success.
"It warn't my idea, suh." Fussing with the hook as if it possesses mystical qualities.
"Is that a fact?"
"Whyn't you go over with them others?"
"It warn't my idea."
Anyone could see that this one has been a good boy all his short life, and that the act of throwing himself on the mercy of adult authority comes as naturally to him as breathing. Upon this one occasion, however, the truth serves him exactly as well as it has served ten thousand men who have come before Finn's father in his time, which is to say poorly. He offers up that palm with the hook in it, a bead of blood gleaming there by moonlight, as if this explains everything, as if he has already endured all of the punishment that he deserves.
"Aww," says Finn, and without a second look he grabs the line that leads from it to draw the child within striking range. He has acquired a natural caution about such things from his years on the river, an instinctual feel for the tension of the line and the power of the hook and the secret breaking point of the tender pad of flesh within which the barbed iron has buried itself. The boy rises like a perch, fighting his natural inclination to resist capture, judging furiously the relative risks and advantages of the two paths open to him. And before he can make up his mind to come along or jump Finn is upon him with the back of his brutal right hand. A spattering of the boy's teeth precedes him into the river and the hook flies free, nearly but not quite catching Finn in the cheek. There's a spot of blood on the gunwale where the boy's head hit after the blow and whether or not there's any thrashing to be heard from the river is no concern of Finn's, certainly not as regards a thieving nigger boy and a sissy at that, blubbering away about a hook in his god-damn hand. He kneels and bends to take up the gasping fish, tenderly as a shepherd.
Excerpted from FINN, by Jon Clinch. Copyright © 2007 by Jon Clinch. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.