Prim’s giggles and excited cries are so loud that I can hear them clearly over the din that the hundreds of people gathered in the middle of Town are making. Tonight is the only night of the year where all of us District dwellers, both Town and Seam, meet and mingle with no thought of the divisions that we have foolishly created for ourselves. The square in front of the Justice Building is turned, every year on this night, into a colourful, musical arena where all the merchants set up their wares, enthusiastic musicians play on stage, and where the whole area is decorated by the artists from 12 to reflect the beauty and magic of the Moon Festival.
I remember my grandfather telling me as a child that many years ago, before the beginning of the Fourth World War, and before the dropping of the Bomb that nearly wiped us all out and which made the land recede, there was a celebration on this same night called Christmas. This was before organised religion was banned with the creation of Panem, in a time where people still felt the need to trust that there was something beyond them to give a reason to their daily strife. Then the War and the Bomb came, followed by Panem and the Capitol, and little by little, people preferred to believe that there was no God, rather than a God that allowed their life to crumble before their eyes.
I sometimes do wonder if there is anything beyond the mundane struggles of my daily life as a miner, husband and father, but I know well enough not to externalise such thoughts. From our infancy, in Panem we are made to believe, in the Capitol we are forced to trust, and that is the beginning and the end of it. Any other truth is inconsiderable. However, I push these musings aside as I look down to see my excited four-year-old daughter clinging to my hand, her face alight with glee, as we make our way through the square to celebrate the beginning of the Longer Days that will slowly lead us into spring and then summer. Katniss is on my other side, tall and more solemn than an eight year old ought to be, her enjoyment of the night evidenced by the muted smile she gives me before giving my hand a little squeeze.
This is the one day of the year where I try to treat my girls and to make them feel no different from the fair skinned, blonde merchant girls who Prim so ironically resembles. Each year, as from the beginning of autumn, I try to set
aside some coin every week so that I may not deny them little gifts from the stalls, even though they have learnt early on in their lives not to ask for anything. I’m proud of my girls, and this is the night where I can reward them for being so brave to endure the year that would have just passed, and to encourage them to do the same in the following winter months. This is also the night where their mother just lets me spend time with them, since this is so rare due to my long shifts at the mine, and remains at home to prepare a sparse feast with which to treat our daughters.
The snow starts to fall, and the crowd reacts in delight as the white flakes cover the sharp, ragged edges of our district and slowly give the square a muted glow as they allow it to reflect the warm lights of the stalls. Even the fiddlers on stage change their tunes into something softer and slower, and the whole atmosphere is turned into one of general, uncommon, happiness. Prim hops in excitement, and cries in delight as she catches sight of the stall of the Mellarks. “Please Daddy! I just want to look!”, she begs and she tugs at my arm.
Tonight we can try to go beyond looking, I tell myself, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for her, especially if I find that the money I have in my pocket is not enough for the Baker’s fresh wares.
Wheaton Mellark mans his stall with his usual joviality, but his ready smile falters just a little when he sees me approaching with my girls. It’s been nearly fifteen years, but I know that things are still unresolved between us, and I also know that it is mostly because of me. My wife May and I had fallen in love with each other while she was still promised to him and even though Wheaton and I had known and respected each other before that, I never found the courage to go up to him after our toasting to apologise, or even to just talk about it. So the closure never really happened, and the tension never quite dissipated between us. I know that Katniss and his youngest son are in class together, since my daughter mentions the boy sometimes at home, but as parents we never really tried to mingle at school fairs or concerts. I guess I always felt throughout the years that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. This method worked brilliantly for my conscience.
Whatever Wheaton was thinking however, he managed to hide it well, and greeted Primrose with that kind of smile that a man who really wishes for a daughter could bestow. While he cheerfully chitchats with her, I catch sight of Peeta, Katniss’ classmate and youngest Mellark, who is perched comfortably on a table behind the counter of his father’s stall, with a sketchpad on his lap, and a pencil in his hand. He seems startled to see us, and buries his nose in his drawings, chewing on his lip and doodling assiduously. I sneak a look at Katniss, who stares at him in silent interest, before turning my attention to Wheaton.
“Mellark,” I start awkwardly, as I greet him with a nod.
“Everdeen,” he replies in the same vein, “came to look at some cookies for the girls?”
I nod with a smile and look down at Prim, who is craning her head to look at the trays, her eyes round and bright with wonder at the decorated cakes and cookies. “You have really outdown yourself this year, Wheaton,” I remark. “I’m not sure I will be able to tear away Prim from here before dawn,” I add jokingly.
“She can stay here as long as she wants,” he replies, “but you’re giving me credit when none is due. It’s my lad, Peeta, who did all the decorating this year.”
I look at the boy in surprise. He must be eight like Katniss, but his workmanship is akin to that of a much older person. He sits up straight and glows with pride as his father pats him on the shoulder, only to deflate in embarrassment with my next words. “Katniss mentions you sometimes, she tells me that you draw very well,” I tell him kindly. My daughter stiffens and frowns as she ducks her head and stares at her boots.
“Thank you, sir,” Peeta mumbles, and awkwardly starts to scrawl nervously on his sketch pad again. He steals a look at Katniss and his face falls when he sees her stubbornly avoiding his gaze. My daughter digs her boot in the snow and squirms while Wheaton and I turn to look at each other and raise an eyebrow.
“Peeta, Naan and Barley are bringing over some boxes from the bakery, why don’t you go help them?” he asks. The boy jumps off the table and runs off in the direction of the bakery without a second glance.
“Katniss, honey, take Prim to see some ribbons at Moira’s stall. I’ll see you there in a few minutes with some cookies, okay?” Katniss nods and leads her reluctant sister to the nearby stall while I lean towards Wheaton and narrow my eyes.
“Your kid? And my kid?” I ask in mock exasperation. “Did you know about this? Surely you must see the irony!”
Wheaton shrugs. “He mentions her more times than he ought to, but he’s eight. It’s just a little crush, he’ll get over it,” he replies nonchalantly. “He has to,” he adds tightly.
I can’t help but taking offence at what he seems to be implying. “He can do
much worse than my daughter, you know,” I reply, trying to make a joke out of it.
“I will not allow him to mix with the Seam, Jack,” he lifts his hand to silence me when I bristle and open my mouth to retort. “I’m not talking about May and you now. That the past and I’ve come to accept her decision, whatever my opinion of her current situation may be. I’m talking about my son. As the youngest of three boys I already have the problem of not knowing what to do with him. He can’t have the bakery, but I sure as hell don’t want him in the mines.”
I shut my mouth as I see Peeta returning to the stall, his thin arms holding a box that seems far too heavy for him. He would never survive in the mines. Wheaton is suddenly called to deal with a throng of eager customers and I stand silently aside, looking carefully at the boy as he empties the box from some fresh loaves and places them industriously on some metal trays. He keeps glancing at me nervously, and is visible terrified when I actually address him.
“So you know how to draw?” I ask awkwardly.
He gulps, nods and mumbles “yessir, sir.”
I smile at his double use of the word sir, and can’t help but wonder how long it will take him to realise that a miner from the Seam is no sir. I also wonder how long it will take him to start treating Katniss in the same way Town boys treat girls from the Seam, and how old he will be before he calls her a seam-slut in her face. I only realise that I’m glaring at him when I see him cower before me, his hands nervously clutching at the strings of his worn apron.
“And what do you draw boy?” I ask again, secretly, well not so secretly, enjoying myself as I terrorise an eight year old kid who had the cheek to take a fancy to my eldest.
“Scenery sir, things,” he replies quickly, “faces…” His voice falters when I raise both eyebrows at his last admission.
“And what kind of faces? Girls? My girl?” I ask ominously as I kneel down with him and stare at him intently.
I force myself to take a look at him, a good look at this boy who seems to be infatuated by my girl. I take in his mop of golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin, a complexion that only serves to accentuate the burns and bruises on his arms. I know all about his mother, and I marvel at how he can still seem to be such a decent, positive chap with the reminder of his greatest rejection facing him constantly at home. I realise that the eyes that nervously stare back at my own are free from any resentment, anger or negativity, but are full of sweetness and hope.
“You’re a good boy. A very good boy” I whisper before I can help myself, and he rewards my indiscretion with a shy, albeit very surprised, smile.
He reaches for his sketch pad, his hands wavering for a moment before he takes a deep breath and tears a page out of it. “I think you should have this, Mr Everdeen. I’m sorry,” he whispers as he hands me the paper.
It’s a picture of my daughter, drawn in broad, strong strokes with his pencil. It seems to be taken during school hours, as Katniss stares serenely out of the window of their classroom. I don’t think he should apologise for capturing my daughter’s understated beauty in such a way, but I’m sure not going to tell him that.
“Thank you,” I reply a little stiffly. “Are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”
“I have others,” he blurts out and blushes. “Sorry,” he says again helplessly.
Of course he has others…
I look down at him and try to look stern. “I see. I hope they’re all decent, my boy!”
Peeta squirms and his father, who has in the meantime served his other customers, comes to his rescue. “For goodness sake, Jack, he’s eight, of course they’re bloody decent!” he huffs. “Make sure they remain like that, boy,” he adds, pointing his finger at his son’s face in warning. “Now go help your brothers before they destroy the bakery on each other’s head!” The boy nods and scampers back to the bakery.
I stare at the picture in my hand and turn to look at Wheaton thoughtfully. “It’s just a crush,” I tell him, repeating what he had just told me a few minutes before. “It will pass.”
He looks at me grimly. “For the sake of both of them, it better.”
I know that I should agree with him. Katniss and Peeta come from different worlds within a confined, miniscule district, and nothing good could ever come out from a possibly attachment between them. My wife May somehow manages to survive in the Seam through her skill as a healer, but Katniss would never be accepted in the merchant class, and Peeta would fade away in the darkness of the mines. But as I remember his open, honest face as he looked at me, I can’t help but think that he is the sort of boy that I would love to see besides my daughter.
I shake these thoughts out of my head, buy the cookies and think of the warm meal my family and I will share tonight, one of the last ones before the cold winter that has started with tonight’s snow takes over, and I comfort myself with the thought that as long as I am there for my family, my daughters will not need anyone else but me.