I don’t remember a time without hunger, Reapings, poverty and division. But I’m of the few that actually know that such a time existed. Not only was my grandpa born before the Dark Days, by his Papa before him had survived the Greatest War, and had lived to see a whole nation being destroyed and the aftermath that led to the miserable life we have today.
The details are hazy. At fifty, I am not young, and I’ve never been very smart. I didn’t like school much. I don’t know how to read and all I know in life I learnt from the little stand at The Hob that I took over from my poor Mama, and which somehow keeps the most desperate of us alive in times of need.
Grandpa used to tell me that his Papa lived in a time where people could speak and read and learn and travel and communicate freely. In those days people did not only have telephones, but they had little flat boxes and devices which they could carry around and use to communicate and look for answers to questions they could ask without getting into trouble. There were flying machines, different from hovercrafts, which used to take you to other lands, and people used to choose to fly just for their own amusement. Sometimes I think that he was just playing around with me, filling me with stories that just cannot possibly be true. But from what we see on television, the Capitol does have things that are more fantastical than flat phone devices, so maybe...there were times where such things did exist even in the Districts?
Mind you, the life Grandpa spoke about was different. He says that his Papa told him about other lands besides Panem, or North America, as it used to be called before. There used to be whole vast lands where people all looked like that boy who died from District 11 last year, and others where people look just like the girl from District 3 who won that edition with the snakes. Apparently great-Grandpapa lived in a time where people were not compared for their looks to Tributes from specific Districts, because Tributes did not exist, and neither did the segregation of the Districts.
As a child I was told that people spoke other tongues too, but I don’t think that can be true. What is the point of having special phones if then you don’t understand each other?
Not that it matters anymore. The Greatest War came, I don’t really remember why, but I think it was because people worshipped different gods, or one god with a different name, and they started killing each other because of it. It seems to me to be a rather silly reason to start a war, especially since it led to bombs being dropped that caused the sea to swallow up land and kill almost everyone, and for the survivors to turn against each other, leading to the creation of Panem. But who am I to question? Perhaps if you have everything, you choose to start wars for silly reasons. President Snow does not allow us to think of gods and other such things. Maybe he is right. I never really question what President Snow decides.
I don’t know whether there is anything outside of Panem anymore. After the Greatest War ended, communication stopped, and Grandpa always thought that everyone in those faraway lands died and that only we managed to survive. But he didn’t know for sure. He was not allowed to ask. I used to wonder as a kid whether people existed outside of Panem, but the older I grew, the less I cared. Life outside of Panem started to matter less and less when the world around me kept growing smaller and smaller. I survived the Reaping in a midst of indifference and apathy, not wanting to die in the arena, but not particularly keen on the life I was leading in the Seam either. I married at eighteen, had a daughter two years later. My husband died in the mines, as I was always taught to expect him to do. The Seam boys who survive the Reaping still have to face their own daily arena. The Seam girls learn to grieve with detachment when they lose their father or their first brother. By the time they lose their husband, they’d be mixing their sobs with foraging for food and work.
And this was my life, with a world shrinking more and more until only my daughter remained to give it importance. The fates were evil though, and she died at childbirth, leaving me to deal with heartbreak that I was never prepared for. My son-in-law remarried soon after, choosing to leave me with a granddaughter who is the most gentle and most beautiful girl in the world, and who will never know sorrow because in her simple, happy mind, she can see no bad in life.
My small world let the Reaping of the 74th Hunger Games pass without much devastation. I was fond of the Seam girl, and in her small way she contributed to my life at The Hob, fitting perfectly into our little network of illegality that somehow kept us all going without facing the whip or death. I didn’t know the boy other than he was the baker’s youngest, and that on the rare occasions where we would cross each other in the District and he would greet me with a “Good morning Ma’am Sae”.
Sweet, sweet, polite boy.
And so the train took away one of the only providers of fresh game, and the only person in my little world to call me Ma’am. I did not give it much thought until the Games actually started, until I saw Peeta and Katniss – their names suddenly on everyone’s lips - struggling to keep each other alive, unknowingly engaging a nation with their bond. I’m not sure when or how it happened, but before I knew it I had allowed the miner’s daughter and the baker’s son to sneak their way into my little world.
And here they still are, after the Bombing, after almost a year in District 13 working in the kitchen and after seeing the world as Panem knows it collapse with one arrow. Katniss returns scarred, guilty, consumed by nightmares, and Peeta follows her after a few months, confused, frightened, and struggling against his poisoned reality.
Following some unsure and cautious attempts, the boy slowly makes his way back into the girl’s life. He starts coming for breakfast soon after his return, and helps by washing his plate and hers. After a few days, she starts to carry her plate to the sink. A week later she helps him to dry them. On the day she murmured a shy good morning to him, and the boy smiled a smile that filled the room. My world may be little, but it shined as a result.
When I arrive to her house this morning, I smile when I see that the boy’s shoes are already placed tidily by the door. I smile, guessing that soon my services will not be needed in this house, until I hear loud sobbing from the living room, and I see the girl crying helplessly while the boy rocks her in his arms as he tries to calm her down. Even though I can guess that the girl cries a lot in private, this is the first time I see her sobbing openly since her return home. I wonder whether I should perhaps intervene, but I decide not to. From what I witnessed during the Games and the war, only the presence of the boy can keep her functioning. So I stay hidden in the doorway, witnessing a scene that should not really be mine to see.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep!” she whimpers in despair as she clings to his shirt, “I try…I’m so tired, I can’t keep awake, but then there is much blood and fire...I can’t take it anymore!” her voice trails into wrecking sobs while the boy strokes her hair.
“I know Katniss, I know. I hear you scream every night,” he replies sadly as he rubs his hand against her back. The gesture seems to have a calming effect on the girl, whose jarring sobs slowly turn into sniffles. My heart sinks as I realise that they are so, so young. The way we have treated our children all these
years, sending them to die instead of protecting them, is shameful, and these lost souls are the constant reminder of our cowardice. How could we have let it happen??
“Every night, I want to come and comfort you, but I don’t know whether you even want me around,” he tells her sadly, “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Not after what I’ve become.”
Katniss stares at him in disbelief. “You’re Peeta,” she whispers, “you’re Peeta and you’ve become nothing else,” she tells him as trails her fingers gently down his face.
He gives her a small smile and cups her face with his hands. “Would you like me to ... stay with you, like we used to do before, maybe until you fall asleep?” he asks gently, as he wipes away her tears with the pad of his thumb, “I can leave in the morning, as soon as you want me to, I promise.”
The girl is silent for a moment, and buries her head under his neck before nodding. “So you’ll stay here until I sleep?” she repeats, as if she’s trying to believe it, “you still want to help me?”
“Do you really have to ask?” he replies as he tucks her untidy hair behind her ear, “I’ll stay until you tell me to go.”
The day after, I once again walk towards her house and I see them both carrying boxes from his house to hers, with the girl insisting on carrying more than she can handle and looking around her as if challenging anyone who might have something to say. There is no one but me in the vicinity, and I definitely have nothing against this arrangement. She looks stronger and more alert than I have seen her in a long time and she rushes up the steps of the porch while the boy slows down to greet me.
“Did she sleep?” I ask immediately.
“Yes. All night,” he replies with reddened cheeks as he pretends to forage in one of the boxes that he had just set down.
“Good for you, boy,” I tell him, “and thank you for coming back for her.”
The boy frowns, his brow furrowed as if in thought. “Katniss is my home,
Ma’am Sae. I have nowhere else to be, and here is where I want to stay.”
It is clear that I am not needed in her – their - house anymore, so I decide to make my way towards Haymitch’s home and start to clean. He will wake up, rant about my intrusion, but then he will pay me generously. I will make sure to visit every few days. Winter is coming, and my granddaughter needs a new coat.
Time goes by in my little world, and Thom Styles and his reconstruction team build me a little home in the Square, since the Seam exists no more. With the money Haymitch pays me to take care of his house, I don’t have the need to do anything else than sit on my porch and marvel at the life that is happening around me. I see smiles, peace and the determination to learn from past mistakes and to build something new and lasting. Delly Cartwright and her brother reopen their family’s shop. He makes shoes, she sews clothes, and within a few months she becomes Delly Styles. Thom can’t seem to get over his happiness, and spends the first week after their Toasting introducing her to random people as “my wife, Adelaide!”, even though most of the District has known Delly all her life. This only stops when Delly publicly – and rather loudly - threatens to introduce him to a broken nose if he didn’t cut it out. I never heard people laughing so heartily in the Square. My world in District 12 is becoming increasingly happy. And my heart remains linked to three people.
A year has passed since Peeta and Katniss found each other. The boy assists in the rebuilding of his bakery, and Mellark’s now stands once again in the Square just opposite the new Justice Building, alongside shops owned by dark haired merchants who learned their trade in The Hob. The class distinction is now gone, together with most of the original blond population of the District, but with the closing of the mines, and the cleaning of the air, more and more people from surrounding districts are also moving to 12 to try their luck at a new life.
There are days where from my porch I catch sight of the girl at the bakery, sitting quietly in a corner behind the counter, reading a book or just staring outside the window. According to Haymitch her stays at the bakery usually coincide with a night full of screaming or sobbing by either of them. It seems that being together in the same room calms them down, a guess that is confirmed by the fact that whenever there are no customers, the boy is quick to crouch next to her to meet her lips with his with a gentle kiss. Someday I might
tell him that their actions are visible to anyone who’s looking, but then again, why should they be made to feel ashamed of being in love?
She learns to smile more while he encourages her to hunt, at the same time trying to learn not to drive himself crazy with worry behind her back. They sleep, they work, they live, and it is quite clear to everyone around them that they love as well. So it comes as a shock when one day, the bakery remains closed, and I find the boy at Haymitch’s house trying in vain to fight back tears.
“But kid, you know how she is,” Haymitch says, looking totally out of his depth in the conversation that I’m interrupting, “she’ll come round, I’m sure.”
The boy just swallows and shakes his head. “I don’t ... I don’t think she will,” he replies with a broken voice, “You should have seen how she reacted. She was hysterical!”
“What’s happening here?” I ask, since neither of them seems to have noticed my presence.
The boy squirms and Haymitch rubs the back of his neck in discomfort. “The kid here asked sweetheart to marry him and she just screamed at him and threw him out,” he explains looking at me rather helplessly.
“What are you going to do about it?” I ask both of them.
“I’m going to drink,” replies Haymitch, “and I think the boy here is going to cry, right kid?”
Peeta glares at him before turning to me, his eyes wide and hurt. “I’m not sure what to do Ma’am Sae,” he replies. “I really thought she’d say yes...we’ve been doing well, we’re helping each other heal…I think I should move out maybe. But she doesn’t sleep well without me…I don’t know…” he trails off helplessly.
He really does look stricken. And the girl ... I don’t know what is going on in her head, but I plan to find out.
“Stay here boy. Don’t drink,” I tell him before turning away. I’m not about to see my little world crumble around me without doing something about it.
I find Katniss curled up on the couch, her eyes puffy and red, and her cheeks sticky with drying tears. As soon as she sees me entering the room she hiccups and buries her head in the cushions.
“Please Sae, please don’t,” she pleads.
I move her legs and seat myself on the couch, pulling her in an upright position.
“Dear girl, what are you doing? Why did you send your boy away?” I ask her, trying to keep out any trace of reprimand from my voice.
She tugs at her sleeve. I haven’t seen her this vulnerable since before the boy returned from the Capitol. “Peeta asked me to marry him, but you know that already,” she whispers, “I can’t, I should have never allowed myself to get so close to him.”
My heart fills with dread. “Why? Does he not make you happy?”
She shakes her head vigorously as if she is shocked at the thought. “Sae, he makes me happy, happier than I ever thought I could be,” she replies, her eyes spilling fresh tears, “it’s too much, it’s not right, not when everyone else has lost so much!”
I pull the girl towards me and put my arms around her, feeling a twinge in my heart at the memory of my dead daughter. I’m not going to allow this girl to bring about her own misery, not when she has been given a chance at real happiness.
“Are you talking about Prim?” I ask her cautiously.
“Prim, Finnick, Rue, Cinna...everyone, everyone!” she cries in my shoulder. “They’re dead, all dead! I cannot be happy, it’s not right Sae, it’s just not right...” her voice trails to a whisper and for a minute, the only sound that can be heard is her heavy breathing as she tries to stifle her sobs.
After she calms down, I rise to the kitchen to make her a mug of tea, and I wrap a blanket around her shivering frame.
“Sweet child, you are too hard on yourself,” I tell her quietly.
She shakes her head stubbornly. “No, I’m right, you know I’m right,” she scowls.
I know no such thing but I try a different approach. “Your Peeta, is he a good man?” I ask.
She replies without missing a beat. “Yes. Yes… so, so much.”
“Do you think he deserves to be happy?”
She eyes me suspiciously. “Yes he does, but - ”
I raise a warning finger and look at her sternly. “No, not buts. Does Peeta deserve to be happy?”
“Yes,” she murmurs.
“What do you mean, why?”
“I mean why. Why does your boy deserve to be happy?” I insist.
Her shoulders slump and she stares at her steaming mug. “Because he lost everything. Because he is brave, and strong. Because he helps people,” she replies.
“Because he fought so hard against the Capitol, he was hurt and nearly killed, but he survived.”
“How is he different from you child?” I remind her gently. “You and him lost and suffered and fought in the same war, why are you harder on yourself than on him?”
“Because it’s not his fault that his family and friends died!” she snaps.
“And do you really think that it is your fault that you lost your friends and your sister? Really, child? Think about it,” I respond, trying to make her see reason. “I don’t know how Finnick O’Dair died, and I don’t even know who Cinna is, but I know that it cannot be your fault. You and your boy, and your lost friends have fought a war. And in a war, everyone ends up a loser, through no fault of his own.”
Katniss doesn’t answer me, but I can see that she is thinking hard.
“Do you love him?” I ask her suddenly.
“Of course I do,” she replies rather wistfully, “how can anyone not love Peeta?”
I smile at her gently before removing her mug and enveloping her into a tight hug. “Then love him dear girl, love him and marry him and let yourself be happy,” I murmur.
She swallows a sob and looks away. “But he wants children, and I don’t want them. I don’t think I ever will,” she admits.
“You’re a child yourself,” I reply, “and a child can’t think of having children. Peeta will understand. He loves you so much, surely you can see it?”
She links her tiny hand with my calloused one and squeezes it tightly. “I do see it, Sae. And every day I try to convince myself that I may one day deserve him.”
“I think he wants nothing more in life than to convince you himself,” I tell her, “and he’s sitting with Haymitch at the moment, waiting for you to allow it.”
As I look at them, I feel that my old, worn soul is suddenly engulfed with warmth that has nothing to do with the raging fire that burns in front of us. I’ve never seen two hands so closely and tightly entwined, at least not since the Opening Ceremony of their First Games. They had stood so tall and proud in that carriage that day, and so heartbreakingly terrified, with only their linked hands to keep them from falling off and falling apart.
They are scared now, and they tremble as they hold on to each other, but there is no hesitation in their voice as they feed each other the burnt bread.
“I promise to make you happy, to make you believe that you deserve to be happy, and to stay with you always,” he vows, strong and steady as she desperately needs him to be, “I love you, it was always you.”
“I promise to allow myself to be happy, to make you forget all the lies, and to keep you with me always,” she replies, alive and healing as he anxiously wants her to be, “I love you, it will always be you.”
The Doctor says it’s a growth that shouldn’t be there. It is slow, but steady, and soon it will grow so much that my body will give up and stop fighting it and
then I will die. I take the news well. After all, I am seventy-six years old and have lived far more than I expected to. It’s been a very comfortable life in the past fifteen years, and I am ready to let go.
I don’t even have to worry about my granddaughter. Peeta allows her to work in the bakery with him. She sweeps the floors and cleans his trays, and for that he pays her far too much and provides her with daily bread and game from his wife’s hunts. Delly employs her to iron dresses before hanging them in her shop, and Haymitch, who has defied the odds even more than me and is still alive, employs her to clean his house once a week. She has learnt to take care of herself, and I know that she will live well and be happy.
It’s not very comfortable for me to be out of bed this evening, even if I’m seated in a soft armchair in front of a fire. The pain in my stomach is bad, but I hold off from taking morphling this evening. There is a tiny little person that I am going to meet tonight, and I want to be totally awake when doing so.
Her father carries her, a squirming bundle of blankets and mittens and pure beauty. He kisses her cheek softly before placing her in my outstretched arms and I gently stroke her sweet face, those soft, dark curls and hold her tight to me like the precious, tiny gift that she really is. The infant looks like hope, she smells of strength, and feels like love. That deep, brave, beautiful love her parents share.
“She is a very fortunate little girl,” I whisper.
“We are very fortunate parents,” the boy replies, unable to tear his eyes off his daughter.
The girl looks at me, and the only thing I see in her eyes is the clarity and brightness brought about by the guiltless happiness she has finally achieved.
“What is her name?” I ask, as the baby gurgles and turns her head to look for her Papa and Mama.
“She was born at sunrise,” Katniss begins, looking at Peeta.
“So … Alba,” he finishes with a proud smile.
I look at Alba, the sunrise to my sunset, and think of all we went through to achieve this single, perfect moment. I will not see Alba grow, I will probably not even hear her speak, but I have lived the turmoil that led to the peaceful world she now lives in, and all that we went through now suddenly makes sense.
I give her back to her parents, who hold her both in a tight embrace. I look at them with pride, but mostly with gratitude, for refusing to play the Games the way we had collectively ordered them to do. For their disobedience, we lost a lot, but gained much more, for Alba Mellark will now grow in peace and happiness, with a mother and a father who will forever teach her the most important lesson of all – that it takes one spark, just one to ignite the forest fire that paves the way for a new spring.