I arrive early to the meadow. I thought I would be late after stopping to trade a squirrel for some bread at the bakery. Trading is illegal, but we do it anyway. There is even a place to do it to; it’s called the Hob, that’s where most of it is done in District 12. It is the only way for us to survive and get the supplies we need. Katniss hasn’t arrived yet, so I sit down and stick an arrow in the loaf of bread as a joke. Everyone needs a laugh on a day like today, the reaping. The Capitol thinks of it as a celebration, but to us it’s a day filled of terror. My name will be in there forty-two times. The odds aren’t in my favor. Suddenly, I hear the rustle of leaves and the breaking of a twig. I turn around and see Katniss emerging out of the woods.
“Hey, Catnip,” I say. I know her real name is Katniss, but the first time I met her, she said her name so quietly that it sounded like Catnip, so that’s what I call her. I hold up the loaf of bread with the arrow in it and say, “Look what I shot.”
She laughs, just what I wanted, and says, “Mm, still warm. What did it cost you?”
“Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental this morning. Even wished me luck.”
“Well, we all feel a little closer today, don’t we? Prim left us a chesse,” Katniss says, pulling it out.
“Thank you, Prim. We’ll have a real feast.” I pluck some blackberries from the bushes around us and mimicking Effie Trinket, the maniacally upbeat woman who arrives each year to read out the names at the reaping, I say, “I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds-”
“-be ever in your favor!” she finishes with equal verve. We have to joke about it because the alternative is to be scared out of your wits. I pull out my knife and slice the bread. Katniss could be my sister. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related. Every family that works in the mines resemble one another. Our dads worked in the mines together, until an explosion blew them both to bits. Now it’s just me and my mom with my three younger siblings, two brothers and a sister. Katniss and I hunt to provide for both families and we also sign up for the tessera, once for each family member that is granted each year for families in need. But, then your name will be entered once more for each time you sign up for it.
I spread the bread slices with the soft goat cheese and carefully place a basil leaf on each strip while Katniss strips the bushes of their berries. We settle back in a nook in the rocks and feast. The food’s wonderful, with the cheese seeping into the warm bread and the berries bursting in our mouths. Everything would be perfect if this was really a holiday, but instead we have to be standing in the square at two o’clock waiting for the names to be called out. We could run away into the forest. Nobody would come looking for us. They all think that the fence surrounding it is still running, but it’s not.
“We could do it, you know,” I say quietly, saying it out loud.
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it. If we didn’t have so many kids.” They’re not really our kids, but they might as well be. I have my little siblings and Katniss has Prim, her sister. And you might as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? With all of the hunting Katniss and I do, we still don’t have enough to fill our stomachs.
“I never want to have kids,” Katniss says.
“I might. If I didn’t live here,” I respond. And it’s true. If I didn’t live in District 12, were everyone is hungry, I would consider it, especially if Katniss was by my side. Out of all of the girls who throw themselves at me, she is the only one I truly care about.
“But you do,” she says, irritated.
“Forget it,” I snap back.
After a small silence, Katniss asks, “What do you want to do?”
“Let’s fish at the lake. We can leave our poles and gather in the woods. Get something nice for tonight.”
Tonight. After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children have been spared for another year. But at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come.
We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. Katniss found the patch years ago, but I had an idea to string mesh nets around it to keep out the animals.
On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space. Most businesses are closed this time on reaping day, but the black market’s still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good bread, the other two for salt. Greasy Sae, the bony old woman who sells bowls of hot soup form a large kettle, takes half the greens off our hands in exchange for a couple of chunks of paraffin. We might do a tad better elsewhere, but we make an effort to keep on good terms with Greasy Sae. She’s the only one who can consistently be counted on to buy wild dog. We don’t hunt them on purpose, but if you’re attacked and you take out a dog or two, well, meat is meat. “Once it’s in the soup, I’ll call it beef,” Greasy Sae says with a wink. No one in the Seam would turn up their noses at a good leg of wild dog, but the Peacekeepers who come to the Hob can afford to be a little choosier.
When we finish our business at the market, we go to the back door of the mayor’s house to sell half the strawberries, knowing he has a particular fondness for them and can afford our price. The mayor’s daughter, Madge, opens the door. She’s in Katniss’s year, two years younger than me. Today she’s wearing an expensive white dress, and her blonde hair is done up with a pink ribbon. Reaping Clothes. She doesn’t look that bad, so I say, “Pretty dress.”
Madge shoots me a look, as if trying to see if it’s a compliment. She presses her lips together and replies, “Well, if I end up going to the Capitol, I want to look nice, don’t I?”
I’m confused. Is she trying to mess with me or does she really mean it?
“You won’t be going to the Capitol,” I tell her, coolly. My gaze drifts down to a small, circular pin that adorns her dress. Real gold. It could keep a family in bread for months. “What can you have? Five entries? I had six when I was just twelve years old.”
“That’s not her fault,” Katniss says.
“No, it’s no one’s fault. Just the way it is.”
I notice that Madge’s face has become closed off. She hands Katniss the money for the berries and says, “Good luck, Katniss.”
“You, too,” she replies, and the door closes.
We walk toward the Seam in silence. I couldn’t help getting worked up over what Madge said. The probability of her being picked is slim. I hate those people who can afford to live without extra help. The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it. You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. That’s true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem. Each year, I put my name in five more times in exchange for tesserae for each family member. So, at the age of eighteen, the final year, my name will be entered forty-two times. Katniss, who is sixteen and has been feeding her family, will be in there twenty times. It’s hard not to resent those who don’t have to sign up for tesserae because they have a slim chance of getting picked, unlike those from the Seam.
Katniss and I divide our spoils, leaving two fish, a couple of loaves of good bread, greens, a quart of strawberries, salt, paraffin, and a bit of money for each.
“See you in the square,” she says.
“Wear something pretty,” I say, trying to make a joke, but it comes out flat.
At home, I find a tub of warm water waiting for me. I scrub the dirt off as best as I can. I put on one of my nicest, clean shirts that I can find with pants to go along with it. Once I finish, I help my mother get the others ready, and at one o’clock, we head for the square.
People file in silently and sign in. The reaping is a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population as well. Twelve- through eighteen-year-olds are herded into roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, like Katniss, the young ones toward the back. Family members line up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another’s hands. But there are others, too, who have no one they love at stake, or who no longer care, who slip among the crowd, taking bets on the two kids whose names will be drawn. Odds are given on their ages, whether they’re Seam or merchant, if they will break down and weep. Most refuse dealing with the racketeers but carefully, carefully. These same people tend to be informers. The space gets tighter, more claustrophobic as people arrive. The square’s quite large, but not enough to hold District 12’s population of about eight thousand. Latecomers are directed to the adjacent streets, where they can watch the event on screens as it’s televised live by the state.
I find myself standing in a group of eighteens from the Seam. We don’t look at each other. Instead our attention is focused on the temporary stage set up before the Justice Building. It holds three chairs, a podium, and two large class balls, one for the boys and one for the girls. I glance at the one for the boys. Forty-two have my name on them.
Two of the three chairs fill with Madge’s father Mayor Undersee, a tall, balding man, and Effie Trinket, District 12’s escort, fresh form the Capitol with her scary white grin, pinkish hair, and spring green suit. They murmur to each other and then look with concern at the empty seat.
Just as the town clock strikes two, the mayor steps up to the podium and begins to read. It’s the same story every year. He tells of the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North American. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.
To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. The last tribute alive receives a life of ease back home, and their district will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of us battle starvation.
“It is both a time of repentance and a time for thanks,” intones the mayor. Then he reads the list of past District 12 victors. In seventy-four years, we have had exactly two. Only one is still alive. Haymitch Abernathy, a paunchy, middle-aged man, who at this moment appears hollering something unintelligible, staggers onto the stage, and falls into the third chair. He’s drunk. Very. The crowd responds with its token applause, but he’s confused and tries to give Effie Trinket a big hug, which she barely manages to fend off.
The mayor looks distressed. Since all of this is being televised, right now District 12 is the laughingstock of Panem, and he knows it. He quickly tries to pull the attention back to the reaping by introducing Effie Trinket.
Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” Her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center since her encounter with Haymitch. She goes on a bit about what an honor it is to be here, although everyone knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district where they have proper victors, not drunks who molest you in front of the entire nation.
It’s time for the drawing. Effie Trinket says as she always does, “Ladies first!” and crosses to the glass ball with the girls’ names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the ball, and pulls out a slip of paper. The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not Katniss.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not Katniss.
I’m shocked. How could this have happened? Prim is twelve, her name was in there once. She didn’t even take the tesserae. The odds were entirely in her favor. I stand there in silence, like everyone else when a twelve-year-old is picked. Out of the silence I hear a strangled cry, “Prim!” It sounded like Katniss. I see her moving toward the stage, toward her sister. She cries again, “Prim!” And with one sweep of her arm, she pushes Prim behind her.
“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” she gasps.
There’s some confusion on the stage. District 12 hasn’t had a volunteer in decades and the protocol has become rusty. In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated. But in District 12, where the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse, volunteers are all but extinct.
“Lovely!” says Effie Trinket. “But I believe there’s a small matter of introducing the reaping winner and then asking for volunteers, and if one does come forth then we, um…” she trails off, unsure of herself.
“What does it matter?” says the mayor with a pained expression. “Let her come forward.”
I start moving toward Katniss and Prim just as Prim starts screaming hysterically. She wraps her skinny arms around Katniss like a vice. Prim screams, “No, Katniss! No! You can’t go!”
I agree with Prim one-hundred percent, but that’s not how it works. Katniss replies, harshly, “Prim, let go. Let go!”
By that time, I have reached the stage and I pull Prim off of Katniss and hold her in my arms, trying to calm her down. I almost lose it, looking at Katniss. This is probably the last time to see her. We should’ve run when we had the chance. I should’ve protected her when I had a chance. “Up you go, Catnip,” I say, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible. I move away from the crowd towards Katniss’s mother. I’m not listening to what happens next. All I’m doing is trying to hold it together. Once I give Prim to her mother, I turn back around.
“…Let’s give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!” trills the end of Effie Trinket’s speech.
The crowd greets this with silence. We all know Prim, and most of us knew her father, or know her from the Hob. We do not agree with what is happening. We do not condone. Then something unexpected happens. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd, including me, touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to Katniss. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.
Some of the text is from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins