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from the February 2005 issue

Edward and the First Geography Lesson

I still remember him like it was yesterday: a small man, elegant in his own special way, entirely different from traditional men's elegance, such as is found in a suit and tie. He used to buy his clothes from secondhand shops—lenga, as we used to call them; he would choose them with care and a taste for beauty. In winter he would wrap a long red scarf around his neck, then, on days when the cold was harshest (in January for instance), he would wear a black leather jacket. I can remember its design perfectly, just as I remember the khaki raincoat that resembled Humphrey Bogart's famous raincoat in Casablanca, which he used to wear on Basra's rare rainy days. Edward with the curly hair and sparkling eyes, owner of a small bookshop in al-Ashaar. He didn't sell newspapers or literary works. He made do with comic books, and car and sailboat magazines, and medical books written in English.

I was eleven years old, and had recently completed the sixth-grade baccalaureate exam, when my uncle took me to Edward's place to work as his assistant. Dusk was just falling, and the rays of the setting sun were reflecting off the corniche, as though they were fighting to make their way into the narrow one-way alley that opened onto the Shott al-arab, and at whose end Edward's small shop was located. When he saw me, he stared at me as he inhaled the smoke from his water pipe, sitting on a cushion on the doorstep of his shop. I later noticed that there was a small landscape embroidered on the cushion. He laughed, and motioned to me to come closer. I approached him, without looking at my uncle. Maybe it was a duty he was doing for a boy my age. He patted me on the shoulder, and explained, laughing, not to be surprised if there was not much work to do, but that my uncle was dear to him, and that he was sure we would find something to keep us busy. Then he turned to my uncle and asked him to buy me a sailor's outfit. My uncle smiled in his usual way: by slowly lowering his eyelids and pursing his lips, as though he were about to say something, although he didn't utter a word! With that smile, my uncle assented to Edward's request.

That evening, I began working for Edward. He was in his fifties, and had spent his life aboard ships since he was my age. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all seamen also. As he told me, "I belong to that line. Do you know why? Because our great-grandmother was a gypsy dancer from Al Andalus."

That is when he began to tell me the story that will never leave my memory, that I will carry with me to the grave. Has it not been my consolation through all the tribulations I have faced? Who knows? All I know is that I have not forgotten even a single letter from that story:

"One of the caliphs of Al Andalus sent 897 female Andalusian dancers to the caliph of Baghdad—645 of them stayed in Baghdad while the rest were sent on a ship to Basra. One of them fell in love with the captain, who hid her and went with her on a long journey, returning many years later when nobody knew them anymore. While on the ship they had many children, who sailed the length and breadth of the earth and excelled at the arts, for they were not only travelers, but poets and artists as well. The sailors of Basra are their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who still wander the earth." When he had finished telling the story, he asked me: "Do you know who they were, those two?" Before I could think of an answer, he answered for me: "They were my grandparents." He laughed, and added: "I bet they are your forefathers as well, who knows?"

In truth, even if I'm not really one of their progeny, I wished with all of my heart that I was. When I asked my uncle about the story, he replied that what Edward had recounted might seem strange, but that in the end he believed everything that Edward said and did. Edward had been the only one to do what all of the young boys dreamed of doing: "We lived in Tanouma, and we would watch the steamships plowing through the Shott and say that when we grew up we would travel on one of them. But, nothing of the kind. You can see how I ended up, an average employee. Only Edward did what we used to dream of doing."

I learned from my uncle as well that Edward had not retired or ceased sailing the wide ocean except because of one woman, a Caribbean woman, "Cuban to be exact," my uncle affirmed. He was madly in love with her. For twenty years he didn't tire in the least of loving her—he would be circling the globe, but his destination was always Havana. When Fidel Castro and Che Guevara entered Havana, Edward was there with his beloved. It is said that the last time he went there he found that she had died. He visited her grave, and ordered that her gravestone be built in the shape of a ship! It was also said that he bought a plot of land alongside her, and that he willed that when he died he be buried next to her. After that, he didn't finish his journey by ship, but returned to Basra by plane. Ever since then, he swore not to travel, saying that his final journey would be back to the graveyard in Cuba. "Bury these weary bones in the island," I heard him say one day, though he never specified that "the island" was Cuba. In fact, when I would ask him about the veracity of the stories people told about him, he would laugh and say, "Let them say what they want. But one thing is true: if I were not so tired I would go to that island." He would stop and muse in silence, gazing at his water pipe, then inhaling from it, and would say "You are more imaginative than them." I didn't understand what he meant. Afterward he would say to me "Let's finish our journey, for the world is before us like an open book."

In truth, that was the journey that he thought to bring me along on. The next day, when I came to see him, I wore white shorts, and a blue and white striped shirt, and on my head was a sailor's cap. He laughed and said "Perfect," then continued: "Now we begin the journey. Don't be shocked by the job I charge you with."

I was enveloped in curiosity. At that moment he reached his hand toward me. "Take this magazine," he said, handing me an old magazine in English. "Do you see?" I had come close to him when he said that, the magazine was firmly in my hand. Confusion mixed with embarrassment came over me. Maybe he noticed my confusion, for he opened to the first pages, and pointed to the large black and white photos that spread across them. "Do you see?" I nodded, and he added, "That is the port of Valparaiso."

It was the first photo I had ever seen, and even now it is nestled in a corner of my memory. It has never left me despite all of the years that have passed since that lovely Basra evening. (I remember also, that before he gave me the magazine, he had just said good-bye to a man who had been talking with him in English: "A Chilean sailor, also named Edward," he told me, when he saw me staring at them curiously.) I didn't know what he meant by "Valparaiso," for up until that point I had only visited four cities: Al Amara, Al Kut, Baghdad, and Basra. The cities of Iraq seemed to me to be very far away, so this one could have been on another planet for all I knew.

"Valparaiso?" I repeated. I was quiet a moment, then I said, as if sudden inspiration had hit me: "I'll ask the geography teacher about it tomorrow." He laughed, then uttered a sentence which remained engraved in my mind for many years to come: "Forget the geography teacher!" I stared at him perplexed. "First of all, geography tells lies, just like history, and second of all I am certain that your teacher doesn't know about this place," he explained, when he noticed my expression.

"You can read about the world and travel through it this way," he said, then continued, "Look at the picture and tell me what you feel?"

I replied that I would love to go immediately to this "Valparaiso."

"But you can visit it," he told me.

"How?" I asked, surprised.

"In your imagination," he said, then, without leaving me time to reply, he continued right away, "and that is what we are going to do starting tomorrow."

I didn't understand, and he laughed and inhaled another time from his water pipe. "Starting tomorrow, we will wander the earth together until we've covered the globe, like our forefathers the gypsies." He laughed again, and said to me affectionately, "You have some of the characteristics of the gypsy children and that's what I like about you." I didn't understand then what he meant by "gypsy," for he didn't say cowli, the other, pejorative word for Gypsy that was used in the region. I laughed, and he went on: "Starting today, I will show you some pictures, and tell you the name of the country, and the next day you will talk to me about them. For now we're done."

I laughed, and nodded my head in agreement, not knowing the immensity of the burden he had charged me with. Did I say burden? At first glance, it may not seem that what he charged me with was so weighty, but as the days, months, and years passed, I discovered that Edward changed the rhythm and direction that my life took from that evening forward. It is as though he and only he were given the ability to change my life and make it take a new direction. Since that day, up to the moment in which I am writing this story, I have read the world, and invented stories about it by traveling through it. So our days together passed. In the evening his customers were fewer, for most of them were sailors from around the world who visited him during the day, then moved in the evening to one of Basra's taverns near the Corniche, and so it was rare that any of them came to see Edward at that time of day. At the hour when the sky in Basra would start to glow like stained glass, Edward would ask me to talk to him about the cities that I had read about by looking at them, for he knew that I couldn't read English. At that time I had only studied for two years that language which had begun to ignite my curiosity and my love ever since I had entered Edward's shop, and that I now desired to speak with every bone in my body.

As soon as I had started my storytelling, he would go to the gramophone that he had inherited from his father and start it up, turning its crank, all the time keeping his lips on his pipe as he listened to me and to the song that he played more than any other. One day he finally translated it for me, and I still remember the words: "Siento tu mano fría correr despacio sobre mi piel . . . ya olvido reproches que imagine . . . Dije que te quería como a nada en el mundo . . . Vente conmigo al puerto que hay una barca en el malecón con tu nombre pintado secando al sol con tu mano grabada junto al timón . . . Sabes que te quería como a nada en el mundo . . . "

At those moments, I would be sitting on the doorstep of the little bookshop, whose area probably didn't exceed ten square meters, and I would start to narrate my journey. In truth I will say that I faced some difficulties on the first and second days, maybe even on the third, but after the fourth day I became even more eager than he was to narrate another journey. He would ask me, "Where are we going today?" and I would say "To Genoa" or "To Amsterdam, Marseilles, Puerta Allegra, Barcelona, Lisbon . . . " He would laugh, and say his favorite sentence: "Then begin, O Sailor of the Earth!" We traveled in this way dozens of times, every single day. I would talk and talk, and every day my desire to tell stories and to travel would increase. I wouldn't want to stop, and I would keep going and going until sometimes he would be forced to stop me, saying "It's late, you have to go home!"

I would rise and say enthusiastically that we would finish the journey the next day. I knew that he hadn't interrupted me because he was bored, for he would listen attentively the whole time, the pipe in his mouth, his eyes open, staring into the distance as though he could see the places I was describing. So many journeys we took together . . .

Thus, at the age of eleven, I visited a number of distant lands. To my surprise, I discovered that we visited only port cities. Edward only gave me pictures of ports. He was infatuated with seaside cities, and would say to me "You have to see the sun rise on the sea!" I would ask what he meant, and he would reply: "Did you know that the people of Polis in Cyprus believe that Aphrodite appeared to them?" He would pause a moment to turn the crank of the gramophone, and to inhale deeply from the water pipe. "They didn't know that it wasn't Aphrodite that emerged before them, but the morning sun!"

The picture he described to me stayed in my mind's eye. I saw her later in all of the ports I visited during my exile. I met not just Aphrodite, but all of the goddesses of the sea, enchantresses of sailors. I never tired of meeting them, in Oman, Bombay, Dubai, Alexandria, Haifa, Jounieh, Polis, Rhodes, Piraeus, Naples, Genoa, Marseilles, Barcelona, Cadiz, Lisbon, Casablanca, Porto, Liverpool, New York, Puerta Allegra, Valparaiso, Havana, and others.

Only when I started to talk about the West Indies, he asked me to tell the story over again. I didn't understand why. I didn't ask him, but I could see a strange nostalgia overcome him. He was playing the gramophone with an ardor that differed from other days. He smiled and said "Ah, the Caribbean!" then went on, "You know, some women leave you and you forget them quickly, but there are women who when they say Adios, it's like a gunshot." He took a deep breath and said with a sigh, "The wound heals, but it leaves a scar that goes with you to the grave, you know?"

How could I possibly understand, in all of my eleven years? Edward, with his intuition that never failed, told me "I know, it's hard for you to understand now, but this is a secret that I will reveal to you one day!"

I laughed and asked him "When?"

"When you get bigger!"

What did he mean by the "secret"? I didn't know, and as though the situation didn't bother him, he left me to my bewilderment after what he said. Nevertheless, I knew that he never said anything that didn't mean something, so I told myself to be patient, to remember what he had said and hold onto it for a future time.

That evening, he asked me to turn the gramophone, and went into the bookshop, to the storeroom at its rear which was actually bigger than the front end of the shop (no one but me ever saw that place, at least until the time I arrived there), coming back out with a small colored magazine in his hand. He opened it, flipping through the pages calmly in front of me. His hands were trembling. He asked me to look at the magazine, which was shaped like a notebook. I looked, and saw many pictures of white sand beaches, with tall palm trees rising out of them, which were foreign to me at the time (later I found out that they were coconut trees). In the background of some of the pictures reed huts spread out like spots of color across the scene, and on the beaches many kinds of birds were gathered, next to tranquil animals.

"This island . . . this island . . . do you see it?" he asked me enthusiastically. I nodded my head yes. He told me "This is the secret." I looked up at him. Now I regret that I didn't ask him what he meant by "the secret." He returned to the place from which he had retrieved the magazine, putting it back, and when he came back he told me: "This island is always crowded with escaped birds who tired of the fighting among their species. When they arrive, they are welcomed by the animals who decided long ago to leave the world and live there instead. It was written by a wandering Chilean poet, like our friend the Chilean sailor Edward, who roamed the earth but always ended up there. He is like that woman I knew there."

He rose, and motioned to me to follow him to his small bedroom behind the bookshop. It was the first time I had entered that room. My eyes roved curiously, and I saw a bed in the corner opposite the door, whose spread was embroidered with a small forest and birds. At the edge of the bed stood two small tables made of old wood, upon which were placed seashells and small wooden model ships. There were ten ships with different flags on them. It wasn't difficult for me to distinguish their different small symbols, for the room was lit by the evening sun coming through the open door. On the walls, behind piles of dusty books that reached to the ceiling in some places, were drawings of different ports. Next to one of these posters was a black and white photo. I saw Edward go to it and take it down carefully from its place, then come toward me saying "This is her—the gunshot, the heart!"

There are many moments in our lives which we forget quickly, but there are others that remain stuck in our minds no matter how much time advances. Maybe we forget this scene or that one, but in an instant it comes back like a sudden flash, and we feel ourselves standing there, and never forget. That is my state now as I try to describe the woman in the photo. Despite the passing of all of these years, I still see the picture in front of me: long reddish black hair, hanging over her shoulders, wide black eyes, a wide tapering nose, and broad lips. Then that smile, which made her still features jump out and affect me even more, so that I can still see her before my eyes. She was beautiful, and her face belongs to that class of women's faces that, from the first time a man glimpses them, he feels his heart contract and his body tremble, and a world of happiness open up before him.

Was it she that he would spend the remainder of his life with, if there was anything left remaining? In the end, no matter how much we roam, we always return to the attracting power of one and no other. To my surprise, I remained standing in bafflement before him, not knowing what to say, and not sure whether it mattered to him what I would say, for he himself was in his own world, and seemed far away, distant from me for the first time. He returned the picture to its place on the wall, and repeated: "Maria Teresa, the gunshot, the heart, I'll walk the earth like a pilgrim searching for God to have your embrace, your love, a small house for just us two." He didn't seem to snap out of his trance until we were back in our usual spot. At that point, he said to me: "You know, when one day I tell you that I'm tired, you can be sure that's where I've gone."

In any case, that day his story seemed even stranger to me than all of the stories I had ever told him. But, to tell the truth, I had wished from the bottom of my heart that we would trade places that day. I dreamed of being in his place, while he would be the one sitting on the doorstep of the bookshop, telling stories to me.

At one point while he was telling me the story about the island, sitting across from me as I turned the handle of the gramophone, I took myself by surprise. I had reached up with my other hand to straighten the sailor's cap that I wore every evening, and was surprised to find myself touching my hair instead. For a moment I was completely confused, and thought that I had forgotten the hat. I heard Edward whistle to me and laugh, as he picked up my hat, all the while finishing his story. I laughed in my turn—I had forgotten that I had just taken the cap off a few minutes before!

That was not the first evening that we had traded roles, for we would do so every two or three weeks. At those times, after having brought out that particular magazine from the storeroom, and telling me to look carefully at the island, he would suggest that I stand by the gramophone, and that he would be the one to tell the story. He would take my sailor's cap as well. Every time he would tell the story in a different way, as though the island were a thousand and one islands. He even said to me once: "When you grow up you'll understand why this island and no other!" It's strange that when I remember that now, I ask myself, Did he think that I was going to stay with him in that tiny bookshop forever? Nevertheless, I didn't object to his statement then, for deep down I really did hope to stay with him. But I knew that it was impossible for me to work in his store except during summer vacation. I was so happy when he surprised me one evening by saying: "I spoke with your uncle, to see whether you can keep coming here after classes." When he saw how happy I was, he said: "On the condition that you study hard in school."

I did study hard in school, particularly in English class. Only in geography class would I get distracted. The geography teacher couldn't tolerate my daydreaming in his class. When he would ask a question from the day's material, I would raise my hand. But as soon as I would begin to answer, I would start to mix up the hard facts with fantasies from the bookshop. He didn't reprimand me the first time, but over time he started giving me strange looks, as though he wondered if he was really hearing me correctly. But then, how would I know? My journeys were increasing and getting more fantastic every time, a situation which led the geography teacher—who had already warned me against getting carried away in geography class—to request that I stick to the lesson at hand, and to ask if I had any other clothes besides the sailor's uniform, and why I persisted in wearing it only on the days when we had geography class (which was only three days a week). I had no answer, and finally one day he took me to the headmaster, who immediately asked me to bring my guardian to his office. I nodded in assent. That day decided the direction my entire life would take, as you will soon see.

I went to Edward and told him what had happened, and asked him to come to my school as my "guardian." He stared at me in surprise and said: "Your uncle will be angry." I shrugged my shoulders to show that I didn't care about that. He laughed and said "I like you, little sailor." And he went that very day and talked to the headmaster in my presence. I have never forgotten a single phrase of the conversation that took place between Edward and the geography teacher:

Edward: "Sir, what do you know about geography?"

Teacher: "Geography is the study of countries."

Edward: "Do you know about Ibn Batuta?"

Teacher: "We don't study Ibn Batuta."

Edward: "Ibn Batuta did not travel to every spot on earth, yet he still told story after story."

Teacher: "That doesn't change our problem here."

Edward: "Do you know about the geography of the heart?"

Teacher: "Romance has nothing to do with geography!"

At that time, the headmaster made no comment on the discussion, but sufficed himself with saying: "We only want what's best for the boy, no more and no less."

"What's best for the boy is to learn about the world another way. I am his guardian and I'm the one responsible for him."

That afternoon we left the school. We left behind us not only silence, but the stares of the headmaster and the geography teacher, which followed us until we were gone. When we were in the street, I said to him: "Wow, if my grandfather ever heard about this!" He replied, "Your great-grandfather of whom we've spoken would be happy. Now, if you're referring to your grandfather who's still with us, well I think you're right." Then he threw his arm around my shoulder and laughed, saying "Don't worry about it. We gave them a lesson they'll never forget, especially that geography teacher."

It was a geography lesson for the teacher, who continued to look at me strangely, until he began calling me to the courtyard outside the classroom and asking me to tell him about some different countries. This situation embarrassed me in the beginning, as I was only familiar with talking about ports, but with time I got used to it. After that I was compelled to tell stories to the teacher. I did it grudgingly, as I didn't like cities that were not ports—except for Madrid, which Edward had told me a strange story about. He had said "You know, the anarchists used to write graffiti on the walls of Madrid demanding a passageway to the sea for the city. They were right. What Madrid is lacking is an outlet to the sea. But it doesn't matter. True that it's not on the sea, but the sky there is like the sea." I wanted to ask him what "anarchists" meant. Instead, I told him what had happened with the geography teacher, and how he had stopped asking me any questions in class at all. As for the exams, I could just leave because I was excused from them. Edward said to me: "Don't you see, our geography is better than theirs." True. It may not be for other people, but for me at least, that was how I traveled every day. Sometimes when my family would ask me to do something the next day, I would tell them I couldn't because I was leaving on a trip. My uncle would laugh, and tell my father: "Leave him be. The boy has turned into Sinbad."

But I wasn't the only one to use that phrase "I'm leaving on a trip." Edward, also, said that to me. Later I realized that he said that to me when he was sick, or when he went to visit another city, Baghdad for example. In any case, he would leave the key to the bookshop with me, and I would open it when I had the time. On schooldays I would open it only in the evening, for an hour or two. Times like those, the only people who would come would be one or two of Edward's sailor friends. Every time it was a new face. Rarely did one come back, because they were usually never in Basra for more than a week. Edward would say to me, "Maybe we'll see them again in a year or two." And in fact, that is what happened with the sailor from Chile. As I mentioned, I first saw him soon after I first came to the store. The second time I saw him, something happened to affect the course of my life.

It had to have been in September, after the first week of September for sure, for as I remember now, Basra had started to change completely. There was an unusual amount of military activity in the city. On one of those evenings, maybe the ninth or tenth of that month, Edward had just finished telling the story of the "secret island." He closed the book. This time he didn't go back to the storeroom, but said to me: "I don't know what's going on, the city is overflowing with soldiers. You see them everywhere. It's not normal, everywhere you look are military convoys and officers giving orders. Every so often you hear warning sirens. In the bus station and the train station you have women waving goodbye and children crying. It makes me sick. You know, the sight of all of these soldiers makes me tired. Yes, I am dreadfully tired. Tomorrow I will leave on a trip."

I made no comment, for I assumed that, like every other time, he would be gone for a few days and then return. I didn't give much importance to my perceptions when I saw how his fingers played with the edges of the small book that still lay in his lap.

"I might be gone a long while this time," he said to me, and his voice was full of sorrow. But it seems that I was still intoxicated by the music playing on the gramophone, and by the world of the story he had just finished telling. "Take care of these pages. Don't throw them away." I nodded. "Keep this little bookshop open, even if the sailors stop coming!" I took the little book from him, and promised that I would keep coming there every day. He tousled my hair and said "If a time comes when you can't go back to your house, sleep in the bookshop!" I started to open my mouth to ask what he meant by that. He motioned me to stop, and said: "I'll be thinking about you. You are like me, a sailor over the earth!"

That is how we took leave of each other that evening. I thought that I would see him in a day or two, or after four days at the most, because he had never been gone more than four. How could I have known that this time his absence would last? He didn't take a suitcase with him, or the picture from over his bed. On the other hand, I think that even if I had known he would never return, I wouldn't have believed it. Definitely not. For ten days, I sat in the bookshop waiting for him, sitting on the doorstep holding the picture of Maria Teresa, which I had taken from its place and placed in my schoolbag, so I could take her everywhere I went. That was how I lived through those days, with Edward on my mind, and carrying around the picture of Maria Teresa. I couldn't imagine my life without either of them.

It was September, and summer vacation. When my uncle came by and asked about Edward, I told him that he was on a trip and would be back the next day. He would sit with me for a little while, then get bored and leave again saying, "We have to figure out what to do with the shop. I don't think he'll be back tomorrow." And in fact, Edward didn't come back the next day. But on one of those "tomorrows" I saw the Chilean seaman in front of me.

He smiled and asked me in English: "Mr. Edward?"

I remembered the English phrase immediately: "He's on a journey."

He shrugged and said, "I come back tomorrow."

The next day, the Chilean came earlier than the day before. I was looking through the book, which was in front of me on the counter, next to the gramophone. I looked up at him, and smiled, happy that he had come. He smiled back. This time he didn't ask me about Edward, but reached for the book that was in front of me. I had just opened it to that page that showed the "secret island." He looked at the book, then returned it to me, and said clearly: "That's Macondo."

He sat down on the doorstep where I used to sit, and started talking about this "Macondo" in a language I didn't understand. To this day I still don't know if he was speaking English or French or Spanish or some other language. I couldn't guess what language it was as I persisted in turning the gramophone, and couldn't understand a word of what he was saying, except that a sensation of certainty overcame me that evening. Somehow the feeling took hold of me that Edward had gone to the place the Chilean was talking about, and that I had lost him and would not see him soon as I had thought. That was on the 21st of September, 1980. I know this because the next day, when the Chilean came back to see me in the evening at six o'clock, we saw people rushing around in all directions, and planes circling in the sky, and I heard the Chilean say: "It's war!"

His ship was detained in port, but I don't know if that's the only reason that made him come to the shop. It really was war, like he had said, and it would go on and on. No more sailors came to see me. The Chilean and I stayed in the shop. I was glad that he stayed. He resembled the poet that lived on that island, the one that Edward had told me about. For eight months and six days, I told him story after story, while he turned the gramophone. We told stories to each other, each one of us entranced by the language of the other, and the worlds he described. I never stopped watching him, whether he was doing the storytelling or the listening. To my surprise, I discovered that evening that not only did he resemble the poet, but Edward as well: he was a small man, with curly hair, and big bright eyes, elegant in his own special way, who bought his clothes secondhand from the lenga, choosing them with care and a taste for beauty. He even loved to listen to the same song that Edward always insisted on playing again and again. With the passage of time, the city became crowded with military convoys, and the front crept closer and closer until it reached the corniche, making it hard to get to the alleyways that led to the bookshop. I suggested that he take the key to the bookshop and sleep there when he didn't go back to his ship, which was still sitting at the mouth of the Shott al-arab between Tanouma and the corniche. Finally the day came when he said he "felt tired" and would be leaving, and that he would come back one day to take me with him. Like Edward, he never returned. And I, as well, never returned after I left the University of Basra and traveled in the first days of September, taking with me for companionship the picture of Maria Teresa between the pages of the book about Macondo. From what I remember, it was a Friday, and I felt tired, although I was only twenty-two years old; but war had exploded yet again.

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