There’s a keychain with my face on it.
There’s a keychain with my face on it.
It’s the first thing I’ve noticed in the art exhibition Johanna and Peeta talked me into attending. Ten years have staggered on by since Coin fell. Ten years of leaders world-weary and citizens punch-drunk on the sickly sweet liquor of a new world. We have a young toddling democracy in place, Twelve has been rebuilt, every district has a hospital - hell, there’s even legislation against future Games, and genocide is in the dictionaries children use in school.
But my face is on a keychain in an art exhibition to commemorate the history and memory of what has passed, and it’s almost like nothing has changed.
“Katniss, come on,” Peeta tries to reassure me, pushing me at the small of my back until I take a step forward. The tour guide gives me an electric green smile, oblivious to my disturbance towards the keychains that hang on a stand behind her with a sign that says ‘Take a piece of history with you!’
The tour guide gives us another great smile, welcoming our small trio to Praeteritum, the art exhibition in honour of all those who died for the Panem to be reborn. She rattles off a list of credits of those who helped make the exhibition possible and reminds us that flash photography is not permitted in the exhibition. Johanna makes eye contact with me at this point; I’ve no doubt she’s hiding a camera somewhere.
Peeta squeezes my hand reassuringly as it is nestled in mine. The tour guide takes note and almost falls over herself in what Johanna later recollects as the “bread and fire swoon”. It’s exactly why I didn’t want to attend this exhibition - I don’t want attention from the Capitol crazies who have had ten years to move on to a new it-couple ,and have instead given us a legendary status; pinned us with the symbolism of hope and love and triumph that we are anything but.
I’ve enjoyed fading to black, as has Peeta.
But he’s the reason we’re here today. About a year and half ago, Effie rang to tell him about an art exhibition that was going to happen, and encouraged Peeta to submit a piece for consideration. Of course his painting got shortlisted and then selected - what Peeta submitted took my breath away. It was haunting.
It was being showcased under a pseudonym, but as a token of gratitude for submitting an artwork, Peeta was given a chance to see the exhibition before its opening night gala. Peeta had also refused to be paid for his piece’s inclusion - settlement money from both our cases against the Capitol years ago had made sure that we’d never have to worry about money again. In the end, my love for my partner and wanting to see his artwork appreciated outweighed both of our initial concerns of memorabilia with our names emblazoned on or brush strokes that trigger episodes of chaos and memory.
I refocus my attention on the tour guide. Liliana, her name tag reads. Liliana has dyed grey hair and a nasally voice that echoes as she leads us into the first room of the gallery. “Here we have the first room, praesens. The pieces here showcase the present - the gallery is set up so that visitors slowly find themselves winding their way back into the past.”
The room is bright with white fluorescent light in a way that makes you forget it is day time outside. There’s light music playing in the background, but not loud enough to envelop the sound of the lights running. It’s a happy tune. There are four pieces set out evenly in the middle of the room, lined up one by one. There’s a sculpture made out of half-melted spoons and forks, created by a famous artist from District Eight, inspired by the abundance of good food and utensils that are now used in almost every household across Panem. Beside it stands a screeching yellow party dress, a collection of photos that have been stuck to the ground to form the word ‘happy’, and a single pink party balloon, looking a little lonely without a breeze to sway it.
“The present is, um, colourful,” Johanna remarks. Liliana nods in wise agreement. Peeta chokes on a laugh and adds, “The balloon is...festive.”
Liliana ushers us through to the next room. Along the way, we pass staff who are still finishing the final touches on installations and setting up for the grand opening tomorrow night. She tells us that we are now stepping back in time, to five years before, when Panem began to learn to walk again, taking baby steps.
The second room is solely filled with photos, the light of struggle and hope captured and reproduced. We all go our separate ways, looking at different photographs. I warily go in a logical, start-to-finish fashion. Johanna heads for the most complex looking photos, while Peeta zones in on the more intimate-looking photographs. Clockwise, the photos tell stories and memories of the devastation that saw thousands homeless, thousands flee Panem, and hundreds of refugees come looking for something new. There’s pictures of children missing limbs like Peeta but without a clean, functional prosthesis to aid them. There’s eldery men in hospitals who helped save so many but instead were poisoned by the rubble they walked in to.
The third wall is nicer, and it’s no wonder Peeta’s glued to it: it’s full of babies. A photograph of every baby born exactly one year after the rebellion ended. It was a collective project crafted by some District Four teenagers who asked parents to send in photos for commemoration and celebration. The babies look brand new, in that red, squalling, cute kind of way. I take Peeta’s hand again. “I like this wall,” I offer.
“Dear God, newborn babies are ugly,” says a creeping Johanna, who has appeared over my shoulder to shudder at the cuteness.
“If you are ready, sir and madams, we will proceed to the next room,” Liliana says quietly to us. It’s strange, being the only ones in the gallery. It’s the first time I’ve set foot in a gallery, and I’m not one for crowds....but the space is so empty and distilled. It’s both calming and unsettling.
We walk down a long hallway. The music has shifted from guitar to a soft, hesitant piano solo. Liliana leads into into a small, circular room pooled in blue light.
Peeta stops in front of me. A thrilling chill goes up my back, and I’m very glad to be holding his hand. “What’s this room called?” he asks our tour guide quietly.
“Memini - I remember.” The answer echoes into the room and draws us in.
There are three paintings that sit on stands in the middle of the room, making a kind of circle as they stand back to back. The blue light is ethereal. We all walk up to the first painting together.
It’s Peeta’s. It’s called Ghosts. I thought I knew this painting like the back of my hand, but the eerie light and silence in the room show me parts I’ve never seen before.
He first drew me a variation of this one day, about two years after we reconnected in Twelve. I had been lost inside myself for weeks and didn’t think Peeta understood.
But then he drew me.
Eyes closed, hair whipped around my face in an imaginary wind. Outlined in white chalk, this piece was sea-green with loss. Ashen faces, too blurry to make out, had hands of silver trying to tie my untamable hair into a braid. At this point in my life, I’d found a different antidepressant that didn’t dull all my feelings into nothingness. Dreams of my sister and the others I’d lost and hadn’t saved came to me every night, but they were not haunting me. They were tucking me in to sleep and waking me up in the morning. They were keeping me alive.
The artwork that is in front of us now is slightly different, a developed version. It’s in black and white. The girl in the picture is screaming and raking her nails through the air, angered for what she cannot hold on to. Memories, ghosts of times past that are slipping away from her. But the once-silvery hands are still there, tending to her as always. New memories whisper at the frame of the canvas.
Johanna looks in awe. Liliana congratulates Peeta on his work. I give him a soft, sure kiss.
With more confidence than I feel, I look at the following painting. The canvas beside Peeta’s is too rich, the colour too violent. It’s a ferocious explosion, some kind of wax dripping off the canvas and onto the floor. It is messy, sticky, everywhere.
The final painting is a monotone, greyed out canvas. In the middle is a single white rose. Peeta urges Johanna and I to look closer. The black outline of the rose is actual made up of tiny words repeated over and over like a prayer: remember remember remember.
We’re quiet as Liliana leads us back to the main foyer of the gallery. Johanna looks relieved. I think she’s glad none of the paintings involved water.
Liliana actually notices the discomfort of us and queries hesitantly, “Would you like to look at the gift shop?”
Anger flares in my throat and nearly dares to make sound. Anger at these pieces of art for making me feel. Anger that these artworks are meant to symbolise everyone’s grief, everyone’s peace. Anger because I’m sure they don’t. I am glad that Peeta’s expression of grief was able to be exhibited - how would I feel if his piece hadn’t been selected? What if my grief wasn’t reflected in these illusory mirrors?
Peeta doesn’t look happy either. Johanna rolls her eyes at us and leads the way into the little room surrounded by glass walls. “Come on, it will be fun!” She mentions she’s been looking for a new keychain, and laughs at my expression before pulling me through the doorway.
There is a calendar with a Victor’s face for each month. I find Peeta’s face on September. It’s a brooding shot, both handsome and hilarious. Peeta blushes as I wave it in front of his face. Johanna takes a photo and both Peeta and the tour guide begin to beg her to delete the photo off her camera.
I look around the rest of the store, feeling a little more at ease. There are vintage postcards from the Capitol selling for much more than they had originally been worth. There are mockingjay temporary tattoos - and just when I’d thought maybe this gallery was doing something different and good, that old pin returns. However, these gifts aren’t any more distasteful than what normally appears in tourist shops in Twelve.
Then I see what is showcased at the front counter. Art utensils made with the remains of woods that burned in a district after the Quarter Quell.
Bookmarks made into the profile of my sister with a quote that was misattributed to her years ago by a historian.
A board game version of the Hunger Games that will be a fun way to teach your kids about our nation’s past, or so says the tagline on the cover.
The blasted keychains with my face on them blur in my vision as tears threaten to spill over. The consumerism that coats my sister’s memory and everything we fought for hurts so much, like a fresh cut into a badly healed wound. Peeta hears me try to stop my tears and comes over. He takes one look at the bookmarks and the board games and pulls me into his embrace.
“I’m sorry,” he apologises softly. “We shouldn’t have come here.”
I tell him not to apologise - it’s not his fault. I can see Johanna going red with rage behind Peeta, hand twitching for a weapon. Our gazes meet, sadness connected. God. It’s like the Capitol have learnt nothing. It’s like they don’t know how to curate loss. How difficult is it to simply show the reality of war without giving everyone the relief of ignoring it again after one gallery visit? Chaos, horror, genocide - but don’t worry, here’s a keychain!
The worst part hits me. It’s not just that these silly trinkets were made. It’s that they were made because people will buy them.
I let go of Peeta and face Liliana squarely. “I’d like to buy everything in the shop, please.”
Our tour guide is flabbergasted. “I have the money,” I argue, feeling around for my wallet in my bag.
Johanna snorts. “You do realise they have shiploads of this stuff packed away somewhere, right? They just have to put a new order in.”
“We won’t be able to get a new order in by tomorrow night!” Liliana all but screams, completely flummoxed.
The unassuming gift shop attendee’s gaping mouth confirms her words. They won’t have anything to sell on the opening night? Excellent.
I give the attendee my best intimidating look. Johanna, Peeta and I split everything in the gift shop so that we each pay for a third. Liliana is distraughtly on the phone to her boss for much of the transaction. I feel like this is one of the most self-affirming uses of my money so far.
Every little silly trinket fits into Peeta and I’s albeit tightly packed car. Johanna plans to set the boardgames and other perishables on fire in her backyard. Peeta suggests to me, as he closes the boot door, that we should donate the I Survived The Odds t-shirts and wooden pencils to the local orphanage. I wonder if the homeless guy who lives in a shack where the Hob used to be will appreciate the the ‘girl on fire’ orange chocolate bars.
We bid our goodbyes in the same spot where we first met Liliana. The display keychains look lonely on the stand. She tries to recover the unforeseen chain of events by giving us a flyer with an overview of every art piece and how the exhibition came to be. I read the information on Peeta’s art piece while Johanna takes a photo with our tour guide ‘for prosperity’.
Peeta and I turn to leave when Liliana quickly asks us if we’d like to sign the guestbook, shoving said book under our noses before we can refuse. She tells us that every entry will be copied and painted onto a blank wall to the left of us so that the process of remembering history can be continued.
“It’s a message to those who aren’t with us any more, to those who survived; to those who are too young to remember what happened and to those for whom our lives will just be a history lesson,” Liliana says in a poetic way reminiscent of a tribute’s escort.
Peeta writes something lovely about those we’ve lost. Johanna writes her favourite piece was the pink balloon. Liliana hands the pen to me.
I take it, the weight of ghosts heavy in my hand, unsure of what to say.
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